Bluebell Flowers In North America – A Complete Guide

Pictures of different Bluebell Flowers native to North America

Bluebell flowers are a common sight in Spring and Summer across North America. Whether hiking the Appalachian Trail in the East, or the Pacific Crest Trail in the west, you are likely to encounter blue, bell-shaped flowers. In fact there are 21 different species that put out clusters of blue, bell-shaped flowers native to North America. In this article I’m going to give you an overview of the most common species one may encounter (with the largest native range), showing you what they are, where they grow, and how you can propagate them.

In this article:


All of the Bluebell flowers are members of the Mertensia genus. The Mertensia genus exists worldwide with over 50 species. This article will consider those species native to North America, of which there are 21 different bluebell flower species.

Facts about Bluebells and the Mertensia genus

  • Named for Franz Karl Mertensia (1764-1831), a German Botanist
  • Contains approximately 50 species worldwide, 21 of which are native to North America
  • Although details differ, most species have alternate leaves with round or oblong shape
  • All make clusters of flowerheads (botanically known as cymes) that are often bell-shaped and nodding or drooping.
    • Flowers are most often blue, but occasionally white or pink
  • In North America, deer, beer, and some livestock will feed on shoots or leaves. Elk use large plant groupings for bedding and birthing new offspring.
  • For landscaping, many species can make great additions to flowerbeds or use as borders. Some can be used as ‘spring bulbs’ (see Virginia Bluebells).

Quick reference table

The quick reference table below provides general gardening info such as height, spacing, and growing conditions for the most common Bluebell flowers in North America. Later on you can see a bit more for each species with pictures and native range.

Common NameScientific NameHeightSpacingUSDA HardinessSun conditionsSoil texture*Soil Moisture*Garden use
Alpine Bluebells / Alpine Chiming Bells Mertensia alpina6″ (15 cm)4-8″ (10-20 cm)Cold hardy to zone 3Full sun (high altitude) Sandy-rocky, very well-drained. Must be dry during dormancy. Dry to mediumRock garden, dry, well-draining soils.
Aspen BluebellsMertensia arizonica1-3′ tall1′Cold hardy to zone 4 Full sun to part shade (high altitude)Well-drainedMoist to medium. Rock Garden, well-drained flower beds.
Short-styled  BluebellsMertensia brevistyla4-16″ tall4″ Hardy to zone 4 Full sun to part sunWell-drained Medium-dryMeadows, flower beds
Mountain Bell, Tall chiming bells, Tall fringed bluebells,Mertenisa ciliata1-2′ (30-60cm)1′ (30 cm) Cold hardy to zone 4 Part shade. Sun is ok as long as soil stays moistMoist to medium soil in sun. Well drained.Moist to meidumBest near water. Noted for being easy to divide.
Franciscan BluebellsMertensia franciscana1-3′ (30-90 cm)2′ (60 cm)   Cold hardy to zone 4 Full sun to part sunMoist to medium well-draining soilMoist to dryVery adaptable
Prairie Bluebells, Chiming bells, Foothill mertensiaMertensia lanceolata8-18″ (20-45 cm)6-12″ (15-30 cm)  Cold hardy to zone 4 Sun to part sunWell-drained soil Dry to mediumRock garden, raised flower beds under trees/shrubs
Long BluebellMertensia longiflora3-12″3-6″ Cold hardy to zone 4  Full sun, part sun Well-drained soiulDry to mediumWell-draining flower beds
Sagebrush Bluebells, Oblongleaf BluebellsMertensia oblongifolia6-18″6″ Cold hardy to zone 4Full sun Well-drained soil Dry to mediumAdaptable
Tall Bluebell, Tall Mountain MertensiaMertensia paniculataUp to 2′ (60 cm)2′ (30 cm)   Cold hardy to zone 4 Part sun to shadeWell-drained soil MoistForest garden, along water
Virginia BluebellsMertensia virginica1-2′ (30-60 cm)1′ (30 cm)Hardy to zone 4  Full sun to shadeWell-drained soil Moist to mediumAlong forest edge, under trees, open woodland
Green Bluebells, Greenleaf mertensiaMertensia viridis12″6″    Cold hardy to zone 3Full sun Very well-drained soil. Sandy/gritty with some organic matter Dry to mediumRock garden
References[1][2]. *See here to better understand soil texture and soil drainage. And for reference on the difference between full sun, part sun, and part shade – see our guide here.

Most common species of Bluebell flowers

Alpine Bluebells (Mertensia alpina)

Alpine Bluebells plant in bloom.
Credit for photo goes to Matt Lavin by CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed

Also known as Alpine Forget-me-not, the flowers are blue or pink and fragrant. A short wildlfower found in higher elevations within the Rocky Mountains. Generally only 6″ tall, it prefers full sun and very well-draining or rocky soil[3].

Perfect for dry landscapes or sandy soils. It is noted for being somewhat difficult to grow.

Aspen Bluebells (Mertensia arizonica)

Aspen Bluebell flower

Most often found growing at high elevations 5000-10,000 ft with 40% canopy. It grows well near water and part-sun or part-shade[4]. Can reach 3′ tall in optimum conditions[5].

Short-styled Bluebells (Mertensia brevistyla)

Short-Style Bluebells flower, also known as the native Forget-me-not.  Mertensia brevistyla

An erect perennial that is typically 4-6″ tall. It prefers more moist conditions and benefits from part-sun to part-shade conditions[6]. The bloom of Short-Styled Bluebells is most similar to ‘forget-me-nots’ and is quite different from the other species in this guide.

Most often found growing near water at higher elevations of 9000-13000 ft. And it’s native range covers several states within the Rockies.

Mountain Bell (Mertenisa ciliata)

Mountain Bluebell Flower

Growing 1-2′ tall and usually standing erect, this perennial wildflower blooms in spring with nodding dark blue bell-shaped flowers.

Preferring moist soil, it is quite adaptable and can tolerate dry conditions in part-shade. Can often be growing near water with wet feet at higher elevations in the Western USA.

Map showing the native range of Mountain Bluebells, Mertensia ciliata

Franciscan Bluebells (Mertensia franciscana)

Franciscan Bluebell flower

Clusters of pale blue flowers that can reach upwards of 3′ tall. Found in higher elevations of the Southwest United States including the Grand Canyon[7]. Grows best in moist moist or medium moist soil in part-sun to part shade and under conifers within it’s native range[8].

Prairie Bluebells (Mertensia lanceolata)

Prairie Bluebells flower

An excellent choice for dry flower beds or rock gardens, it grows up to 18″ tall in full sun and well-draining soil. A highly variable native range it can be found from the plains of Dakota to the mountains of New Mexico.

Depending on elevation and conditions, it may flower between April and August above 6000′. Often found in a variety of conditions such as prairies, edge of the forest, hillsides, and rocky areas.

I first encountered this species on vacation while hiking in the Black Hills along the Cathedral Spires Trail. As we entered the small canyon I spotted a patch of them not far from a creek.

Long Bluebell (Mertensia longiflora)

Long Bluebell Flower.  Mertensia longiflora.

A shorter wildflower, it often reaches up to 8″ tall with multiple stems with the characteristic nodding head of elongated bell-shaped flowers (longiflora means long-flowered). It mainly blooms in Spring from April to June in damp meadows[9].

Oblongleaf Bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia)

Oblongleaf Bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia)

Oblongleaf Bluebells is a bit short, rarely growing up to 1′, it prefers moist soil in open woods. The flowers are showy, and change to a pink color when fading[10].

Native range of Oblongleaf Bluebells

Tall Bluebell (Mertensia paniculata)

Tall Bluebell (Mertensia paniculata)

Producing nodding clusters of blue flowers in late spring through summer. Similar to Virginia Bluebells but blooms in Summer.

Grows well near water and in part sun. Showy and often found in the Pacific Northwest and North Central North America.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Showy and one of the early perennials to bloom in Spring. Often found near water or moist soil. Grows best in part-sun and open woods. Up to 2′ tall.

Has a wide distribution from the Missouri River to Atlantic Ocean. Can form large colonies in proper conditions. Feeds many pollinators. If you live east of the Missouri River, this is pretty much the only Bluebell flower you may encounter (except M. paniculata in Northern Minnesota).

As an aside, Virginia Bluebells pairs nicely with Eastern Red Columbine, as when Bluebells is finished flowering, Columbine is just taking off.

Native range of Virginia Bluebells.

Green Bluebells (Mertensia viridis)

Green Bluebells flower.  Mertensia viridis.

Short, growing 12″ tall and has bright green leaves. Funnel shaped flowers, showy, and blooms in late Spring to summer. Closely related to Prairie Bluebells (some references consider this a variety of it).

Found in higher elevations in meadows, rocky areas, and alpine regions of the Rocky Mountains. It has a large native range from Canada to New Mexico.

Native Range of Green Bluebells.

Where to buy Bluebell flowers

Some species of Bluebell flowers can be purchased as bare roots or seed. I personally recommend buying from Everwilde seed, as their packaging and quality are excellent. Here is a link to our recommended products page where you can find them.

In addition to seed and bare roots, there are nurseries that specialize in native plants. And these are most likely to carry Bluebell flowers that are actually native to your area. Be careful of big-box nurseries, as they may try to sell you English Bluebells or some other exotic species – please check the botanical name!

But we have worked to compile a comprehensive list and interactive map of Native Plant Nurseries in North America. I highly recommend you check it out.

Identification characteristics

I’ve placed all identification data in the table below to make it easier to get a general idea of what species you are examining. Since most of these plants look similar, it can be challenging to successfully ID them when their ranges overlap. Not quite as bad as grasses, but challenging nonetheless!

But the information below will heavily rely on leaf identification. If you are unfamiliar with how to do that, head over to our botanical guide on leaves to get started.

Identification table

Common NameScientific NameStalkBasal LeafStem LeafFlowerBlooming period
Alpine Bluebells / Alpine Chiming Bells Mertensia alpinaUp to 12″ long (drooping), smooth, can have many stems per plant(0.5-2.25″ by 0.25-1.25″) oblong/lanceolate. Entire. (0.5-2.5″ by 1/8-3/4″) narrow lanceolate / elliptical. Hairy above/smooth beneath. Entire. Panicals of bell shaped flowers 1/4-1/2″ long. Summer
Aspen BluebellsMertensia arizonica 1-3′ long.Not always present. Long stalks, elliptic to oval.Alternate, lanceolate.  Nodding clusters of blue, bell-shaped flowers 1/2-3/4″ long. Spring-Summer
Short-styled  BluebellsMertensia brevistyla 6″ tall Alternate, linear or linear-oblong leaves 2″ by 1″ with prominent central vein.[potw] Alternate, linear or linear-oblong leaves 2″ by 1″ with prominent central vein.[potw]Upright clusters of 5-7 petaled blue flowers.  Spring
Mountain BellMertenisa ciliata 4-48″ (10-120 cm), Pale to blue, smooth.Not always present. 1.5-6″ long x 1.25-4″ wide. Oval/oblong/lanceolate. 0.75-6″ x 0.5-2″, lanceolate/oval. Dense cymes in young plants, panicle in older. 1/2-3/4″ long bell shaped flowers. Summer 
Franciscan BluebellsMertensia franciscana 36″ long stems (arching)Oblong-elliptic leaves 2-8″ long, smooth below and hairy above. Ciliate margins. Prominent veins.Oblong-elliptic leaves 2-8″ long, smooth below and hairy above. Ciliate margins. Prominent veins.Nodding clusters of blue or sometimes white bell flowers 15″ long. Mid-summer 
Prairie BluebellsMertensia lanceolata 4-18″ long, smooth or hairy 1.25-5″ by 0.5-1.5″, Oval-lanceolate, prominent parallel veins. Hairless beneath, smooth to hairy above 3/4-4″ long by 1/16-1.25″ wide, broad lanceolate, semi-clasping. Dense cymes to loose panicles. 1/2″ bell shaped flowers, blue.Spring
Long BluebellMertensia longiflora 3-12″ tallRareElliptical, rounded leaves Clusters of tubular flowers, blue, 3/8-1″ long Mid-Spring to mid-summer 
Oblongleaf BluebellsMertensia oblongifolia 6-18″ tall3/4-6″ elliptical to oval-lanceolate leaves3/4-6″ elliptical to oval-lanceolate leaves  Blue funnel-shaped flowers 1/2-374″ longMid-spring 
Tall BluebellMertensia paniculata Up to 36″ (90 cm) (drooping). Usually multiple stems, smooth or hairy2-4″ long by 1-5″ wide, elliptical lanceolate / oval shape, nearly cordate, coming to a sharp tip. Hairy.2-7″ long by 1/2-3″ wide. Oval/lanceolate shape.Open panicles of bell shaped flowers 1/2-1″ long, initially pink, changing to blue. Very hairy stems.  Spring
Virginia BluebellsMertensia virginica Up to 2-1/2′ tall, smooth round green stemNone when at flowering stageAlternate, 7×3-1/2″ ovate-oval or oblong in shape, smoot margins.  Nodding cymes of flowers. Individual flower is 3/4-1″ long. Pink changing to blue.Mid-spring 
Green BluebellsMertensia viridis Up to 16″ long, arching, one to many per plant1-4″ by 1/2-1/.5″ wide, lanceolate to oval shape. Lightly hairy above, smooth below0.75-2.75″ long by 1/4-1″ wide, lanceolate to oval, veined. Smooth below, slightly hairy above. Nodding cymes of bright to dark blue bell-shaped flowers 1/4-1/2″ long  Spring-summer



For most Mertensia species division is a possible form of propagation, but it must be done very carefully as the plants generally don’t like it. The safest time to do so is right before, or just after the plant goes dormant. I have successfully divided and transplanted Virginia Bluebells several times, but the ‘mother’ plant has not always survived. Before you divide, you should have new holes dug so as to minimize the time the root is out of the ground.

See here for our guide on dividing perennials. And know that it does carry a risk in that sometimes the plants don’t make it.

To divide most Mertensia species, dig up the root once the leaves are laying down and yellow, as at this point you know the species is going dormant. For example, Virginia Bluebells will usually go dormant in June (zone 6), and can safely be moved/divided at that time. Use a garden knife or pruning saw to split off a leg of the root that contains an eye, and replant immediately.

Growing from seed

Seeds for all Mertensia genus can be sown immediately when ripe in proper growing conditions (soil moisture, drainage, sunlight), being planted at a depth just below the soil surface. If one wishes to save the seed for winter sowing, the seed can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 6-12 months[2]. Viability of seeds in storage drops relatively quickly though, and seed that is stored dry at room temperature is likely unviable.

Mertensia seeds
Virginia Bluebells seeds (Mertensia virginica)

Overcoming dormancy

Seed from all species of the Mertensia species have dormancy mechanisms to prevent premature germination when conditions are not correct for the seedlings survival[11]. These dormancy mechanisms can be overcome with pretreatments, and the most common one is simply cold stratification[12]. In nature this occurs as the seed spends one or more years in the soil experiencing a winter, and if conditions are right for the seedlings survival, it will germinate.

While university research has found the most effective method to break dormancy is to scarify the nutlet coat, along with puncture/breaking of the inner coat, but this is not easy to achieve for a backyard gardener. Nor are other methods such as soaking in Sulfuric acid[13] or even using a razor to mechanically scarify the seed, as they are so tiny it can by difficult to do so safely. Thus, in my experience the easiest way to germinate any species of the Mertensia genus is to winter sow the seed, knowing that any freeze/thaw cycles experienced will likely break the seed coat and allow for germination in Spring when temperatures begin to warm up. See my guide on Winter Sowing here.

Mertensia seedling.  Virginia Bluebells seedling showing the cotyledons.
Virginia Bluebell seedling (cotyledons) just after germination (author photo).

Special instructions on winter sowing Mertensia seeds

Now, before you go cutting up milk-jugs to winter sow the seed, there is something very important you should know. One of the common steps at the end of Winter Sowing is to either separate the seedlings into larger containers, or to use the ‘hunk-o-seedlings’ method to transplant clumps of seedlings to a final location. Well, I can tell you from personal experience that Virginia Bluebells does not respond well to transplant while the plant is alive. The tender fleshy roots of the seedlings do not like being disturbed. In fact I’ve killed probably 50% of my seedlings when separating them, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it!

In my own experience, the best way to winter sow Mertensia seeds is to not use a milk-jug, but to use decent sized containers in a tray, at least 3.5″ square pots (deeper is better). Just make sure you use enough containers based on how many plants you would like to grow. The reason for this is that you won’t have to separate, but just thin seedlings.

Juvenile Virginia Bluebells.  These plants are about four weeks old.
I lost roughly 50% of the above seedlings. They did not appreciate being separated!

Once you’ve gotten your germination and thinned seedlings, just keep them in a location that gets morning sun and afternoon shade until they go dormant. Remember, as Spring Ephemerals they will go dormant before summer, and you may think you’ve killed them – nothing could be further from the truth! But, this is the perfect time to plant the dormant seedlings in their final locations, as the dormant root caudex is much more likely to survive transplanting.

Final thoughts

Bluebell flowers are beautiful when examined up close as a specimen, and absolutely stunning when a large colony is stumbled upon. Truly one of the more dramatic Spring wildflowers to grace our landscape, they are enjoyed by people as well as pollinators (and the occasional deer or bear).

Some are readily available for adding to gardens while others are somewhat tricky and temperamental to grow. I personally have learned through experience that these plants should not be disturbed during their primary growing seasons as they taproots can be a bit ‘temperamental’, and that goes for transplanting seedlings as well as division. But, many of these species can make for a lovely home garden display that benefits their local environment by providing food for pollinators.

Find more native plants here


[1] – – American Rock Garden Society, Rocky Mountain Alpines : choice rock garden plants of the Rocky Mountains in the wild and in the garden, Portland, OR : Timber Press, 1986, pp376

[2] – Bennett, Masha, Pulmonarias and the Borage family. Portland, Or. : Timber Press, 2003, pp240.

[3] – Clements, Edith S. Flowers of Mountain and Plain. H. W. Wilson Company, New York. 1926, pp142

[4]- Aspen Bluebells. Utah State University. Accessed 24FEB2024. Archived.

[5] – Youngblood, Andrew P. Coniferous forest habitat types of central and southern Utah. Vol. 187. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, 1985.

[6] – Short-styled Bluebell (Mertensia brevistyla), Plant of the Week, US Forest Service. Accessed 24FEB2024. Archived version.

[7] – Niehaus, Theodore F, A field guide to southwestern and Texas wildflowers, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, pp456

[8] – Heller, A. A. “New and Interesting Plants from Western North America.-VI.” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 26.10 (1899): 547-552.

[9] – Pavia, Jerry, Rocky Mountain wildflowers : photos, descriptions, and early explorer insights, Golden, Col. : Fulcrum Pub., pp218

[10] – Kurz, Ann, Colorado wildflowers : montane zone, Golden, Colo. : Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2010, pp204.

[11] – Baskin, Carol C., et al. “Determining dormancy-breaking and germination requirements from the fewest seeds.” Ex situ plant conservation: supporting species survival in the wild (2004): 162-179.

[12] – Skarpaas, Olav, and Odd E. Stabbetorp. “Diaspore ecology of Mertensia maritima: effects of physical treatments and their relative timing on dispersal and germination.” Oikos 95.3 (2001): 374-382.

[13] – Pelton, John. “An investigation of the ecology of Mertensia ciliata in Colorado.” Ecology 42.1 (1961): 38-52.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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