Photo by Melody

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

By Marna Towne (Mrs_EdApril 28, 2008

When woodland flowers make their spring debut, they are a most welcome sight for nature lovers. In my neck of the woods, no flower is as showy as the Virginia Bluebell.

Gardening picture

Here in Illinois, as in most of the eastern half of the United States and Canada, the Virginia Bluebell is a splash of color unlike any other woodland flower. Found generally in colonies during mid-spring, this native perennial stands about one to two and a half feet tall. It has branching, oval, oblong leaves that are smooth and somewhat delicate in weight. The beautiful baby-blue flower clusters measure about one inch long.

ImageAs its name implies, each flower of the bluebell is shaped like a bell, the tubular corolla widens towards the five fused lobes. While the open bells proudly display their blue color, the closed buds range from pink to purple, a tease of what’s to come. Once in a while, you’ll find variants in the flower color, including pink and white. Every year I’d walk the woods in search of what I called an “albino” bluebell: a bluebell with white flowers. Upon finding this treasure, I’d dig it up and move it to a safer spot in the garden or woods, a place where spring floods would not wash it away.

Virginia bluebells grow best in light shade and moist but not wet conditions. I developed my love for the bluebell in one of its natural habitats, a moist woodland colony along a creek. Often I have transplanted bluebells to a shade garden near the house where they could be enjoyed more often.

ImageI have read that the Virginia Bluebell can be propagated by seed[1], but I have honestly never looked for, nor collected seeds. Clearly this is why the plant colonizes so well. The Virginia Bluebell has a long taproot that often makes it difficult to transplant. I have found it best to transplant either very early in the season, or after the plant has bloomed. When digging this plant, dig at a four- to five-inch depth and take as much soil as possible. If you don’t have a patch of these beauties available, you may find this plant at nurseries and vendors in the shade plants section.

Like many woodland flowers, Virginia Bluebells are ephemeral, that is to say they just don’t last that long. If you’re putting this in your shade garden, be sure to place it near a plant that will be growing strong in the second half of the year. By mid-season, the Virginia Bluebell should be yellowed and going dormant (don’t forget where you planted it!).

ImageIn the home garden, the Virginia Bluebell is a nice addition under a small tree, in a shady rock garden or overlooking a pond. Although it is a pretty pairing with many garden flowers blooming at the same time, I’m sorry to say that the Virginia Bluebell does not make a very good cut flower. If you do wish to use it in an arrangement, it is best used immediately.

ImageIn this Plant Files image from “buttoneer,” colonized Virginia Bluebells are a stunning sight along the waters edge. If you have the right habitat for this beauty, you’ll be assured that a splash of cool and calming color will come your way!

[1] Dave's Garden Plant Files and United States Department of Agriculture

The majority of image here are from Dave's Garden members and Plant Files

  About Marna Towne  
Marna TowneI am one of those fortunate individuals who grew up on rural land that has been in my family for decades. My parents and grandparents were avid gardeners who gladly shared their love of gardening with me. Today I enjoy a small yard in town with my husband, two dogs and a cat who is in charge of us all.

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