Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Yellow Bellwort


Susan Post


When March 21 appears on the calendar, I am ready for spring, with all its wildflowers, migrating warblers, and fresh new smells. I quickly head for the woods to look for my favorite wildflowers, but I am usually greeted by mud, brown leaves that cover the ground, and a gray sky. By mid-April, though, spring wildflower blooming is in full swing and one of the choicest is yellow bellwort— a touch of gold against the brown forest.

Yellow bellwort, Uvularia grandiflora, is a member of the lily family. It’s genus, Uvularia, is native (endemic) to North America and comprises five species. All are members of North America’s early spring flora. According to R. Mohlenbrock’s Vascular Flora of Illinois, our state has two species U. sessilifolia and grandiflora. The latter is found in almost every Illinois county in moist, shady, woods.

Bellwort’s common name comes from the bell-like shape of the blossoms. In Latin its scientific name Uvualaria refers to the flower, which hangs from its stalk like the human uvula from the palate. The uvula is the pendantlike, fleshy lobe in the center of the soft palate in the back of our mouths. Early herbalists thought bellwort was a cure for throat problems due to this resemblance. Grandiflora means big flower and again refers to the blossoms.

When you come upon the plant in the woods, it looks as if it needs to be watered. It has a twisted, droopy, and wilted appearance. The stem is usually branched at the top. The alternate, oblong-to-oval leaves have parallel veins. The bases of the leaves completely surround the stems, giving the appearance of the stems piercing the leaves. These are called perfoliate leaves and they are one of the best ways to identify the plant, whether it is blooming or not. It is also the only member of the lily family in Illinois to have perfoliate leaves. The six-parted bright, yellow flowers are up to 1.5 inches long with six long petals. Each plant will have four to six drooping flowers that grow at the end of an arching branch. Bellwort blooms from April to May and even when in full bloom the blossoms look almost closed. After the flowers have died, the plant continues to grow in a zigzag pattern. These clumps of leaves will remain green well into the summer.

 Inside the narrow bell of the flowers is a deep, nectar-bearing groove, bordered on each side by a thick ridge. Insects that have come for the nectar sip and then back out, scraping off pollen onto their wings and backs as they leave. When they visit the next bellwort, the pollen is scraped off their wings and backs, pollinating the flowers.

Early settlers cooked the upper stem and leaves as greens. The upper stem was also used as a substitute for asparagus.

Yellow bellwort is a soon-to-be-favorite that signals spring is here. In the words of Illinois State Museum author Virginia Eifert, “…a light and airy spring flower with its gold bells twinkling through the woods when April once again is on the land.”


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