The balloon flower – which is also sometimes referred to as the Chinese bellflower – belongs to the single species genus platycodon, and is a member of the extensive campanulaceae family. These perennial plants are native to areas of East Asia, and were given their name because of their distinctively billowy buds which eventually blossom out into large bells. In general, these plants grow as tall as 3 feet; however, there are several dwarf varieties that only reach heights of 6 inches. Balloon flowers generally grow in large clumps from tidy mounds. Their leaves are toothy, narrow and leathery, and develop in stunning shades of gray or blue-green. The flower heads contain around five pointed petals that surround a star-like pistil. Balloon flowers are most commonly seen in rich blue hues, but – depending on the region – may also be seen in colors of white and pink.
Although the balloon flower is best known as an easy to grow garden plant, it is also widely used in traditional Chinese herbology. Better known in the herbalist circle as Jie-Geng, the balloon flower is best known as a powerful treatment for respiratory ailments, such as pleurisy, bronchitis and laryngitis. The use of this plant in a tea is said to assist in draining phlegm and other pollutants from the lungs and airways, and is also thought to relieve irritation of the bronchial passages and throat. Culturally, balloon flowers have certainly made their mark. Not only do they appear in literature, anime and manga, and traditional music, but they also appear in religion. In Japan, the Bureau of Taoist Geomancy has long used the balloon flower as its symbol. Better known as Kikyo – or pentagram – the five petals of this blossom are connected with the five Taoist elements – wood, water, fire, metal and earth. In Korea, this flower has become a well loved ingredient to many dishes. For instance, they may be either pickled for a savory flavor, or preserved in sugar as a sort of candy; the roots may also be stewed and placed in hot soups, while the young leaves may be picked, cleaned and eaten fresh in green salads.
In the old language of flowers, these blossoms were frequently attributed to the reuniting of old friends. In more modern times, this still holds true. As a gift, balloon flowers are commonly traded amongst friends, not only because of their symbolism, but because they are fun, fanciful and brightly colored blooms that can add a bit of cheer to anyone’s day.