Flying on the witch’s broom – Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia

Scopolia is a genus ignored by the horticultural ‘mass-marketers’, thus the only information about it comes mostly from medicinal/ethnobotanical references. Scopolia carniolica and its more ornamental yellow-flowered variety (var. brevifolia), are perennial plants from the mountains of central and eastern Europe. They flower in early spring at the same time with the hellebores, only that they will usually go dormant in early summer, allowing the display of other beauties afterwards. The name commemorates the Italian physician, botanist, geologist and chemist Prof. Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723-1788).

Scopolia carniolica

Like many other members of Fam. Solanaceae (nightshade family) they contain alkaloids which depending on the dose can be medicinal, hallucinogenic or poisonous. There haven’t been though any reports of people dying from Scopolia and actually the highest concentration of alkaloids (e.g., scopolamine) is in the rhizomes. We might end up with some flying squirrels around us, but that’s about it. Because of its hallucinogenic properties (said to give a sensation of flying) it was regarded as magical in medieval Europe and was one of the plants associated with witchcraft. It was also used as a sedative prior to surgeries, as a truth serum and as a cosmetic – for the dilatation of the pupils, considered attractive at the time (Atropa belladonna was used for the same purpose). Today its active compounds are used in medications against motion sickness.

Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia

Scopolia carniolica forms a 40 cm tall clump, adorned with bell-shaped, deep-purple flowers, while S. carniolica var. brevifolia is a little more showy, with bigger and more numerous yellow flowers. They flower very early in the season when not much else is around, as you can see in the image, and they are a good source of food for pollinators too.

A big clump of Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia takes the center stage of a stock bed in the spring at Lost Horizons Nursery. It will be followed by the Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’, which continues the show for the rest of the season.

Scopolias are very hardy, perfect for a woodland setting in part-shade and with a moist substrate. They are particularly useful in the early spring garden, until other plants are starting to emerge. Most often they’ll go dormant in early summer; great ‘followers’ can be tall varieties of Epimedium, Disporum and Polygonatum, or they can be used around shrubs and trees just for the spring display.