Almost tautonymous, this plant of the Canaries isn't missing its sunbirds


I've been to the Canary Islands, once. To Gran Canaria, the third largest in area and second most populous of the Spanish archipelago. I saw many plants that occur naturally only on these islands, such as the Canary Island Pine, the Canary Island Palm and the Canary Island Lavender. I did not see, I don't think, the Canary (Island) Bellflower.

We did go the Canaries in the right season for Canary Bellflower flowers, deep winter. (We weren't alone; that's when much of middle Europe and the UK visit Gran Canaria, seeking sun and sunburn.) However this species grows on the margins of laurel forests, which when we visited were shrouded in heavy fog.

Canarina canariensis carries that species name of many local endemics but the locality is doubly amplified by its genus name, Canarina. In botany we frown upon the exact repetition of the same word in the genus and the species, which we call a tautonym. The scientific name for the Black Rat, Rattus rattus, for example, wouldn't be allowed in the plant world. 'Canarina' and 'canariensis' are different enough to get away with it.

There are two other species of Canaria, both from elsewhere, in nearby tropical east Africa.


The big red flowers are clearly bird-attracting. Not just any birds, it's said, but sunbirds. Now sunbirds are common in eastern Africa but not in the Canary Islands. There, it's tits and warblers that visit the flowers these days.

In fact, these 'opportunistic nectar-feeding birds' are pretty effective at pollinating the flowers of the Canary Bellflower. On the other side of the ledger, introduced rats - supported by some local slugs (actually they are 'semi-slugs', carting round a bit of a snail shell) - eat a lot of the fruit and seed, and may eventually threaten the viability of the species.


If you think the flower looks like a campanula flower, you are quite correct. When first studied by botanists it was classified in the genus Campanula and today Canarina and Campanula are both in the family Campanulaceae. Canarina has six or seven rather than five triangular petals spreading from the bell, and the fruit is 'sweet and sticky', and edible. These fruits, and the plants that bear them, are called bic├ícaro in Spanish, and in the Canary Islands.

The Canary Bellflower has been grown in the UK since the last few years of the seventeenth century but although available in Australia it's not as common in horticulture as perhaps it should be. A few years back Linda Green gave it a very nice write up on Gardendrum, with plenty of gorgeous pictures.

In Melbourne Gardens it sprawls happily over rocks and a few neighbouring plants in our Grey Garden, creating quite an attraction in July when my pictures were taken. Soon the tender leaves and stems will have gone, with the plant shrinking back to small tubers over summer. It doesn't like frosts and it prefers to withdraw when things get really hot.


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