How To Grow Virginia Bluebells From Seed

Virginia Bluebells are one of the showiest spring ephemeral flowers native to North America[1][2]. Adding them to your yard or garden can be a bit tricky, as the plants aren’t always commercially available (even from native plant nurseries). Your options are generally to either purchase bare roots or grow them from seed yourself. But – bare roots are only available for a limited time in Spring.

If you were just looking to add a few plants to a flowerbed, then buying bare roots when they are available is by far the easiest way to go (I’m speaking from personal experience), albeit more expensive than growing from seed. But if you are trying to get a lot of plants, it can be done for about $3 worth of seed if you follow the correct protocol. And if you go collect your own seed, the cost is even less – but you’ve got to do it right to keep the seed viable.

In this guide I’m going to explain the process saving seed, and planting/germinating the seed. I will cover several methods of breaking dormancy, and rely in detail my experience growing this plant over the years (I’ve been doing so since 2015). Also, and this is important – the protocol I’m going to describe should work for all members of the Mertensia genus (basically other native bluebells from the Western USA). So, if you’re out in the Rockies and want to save some seed from that pretty little bluebell flower, well, you’ve come to the right place.

By the way – if you’re looking for more info on this plant beyond growing from seed, head over to my detailed profile on Virginia Bluebells including native ranges, growing conditions, pollinators that visit….everything.

How to save Virginia Bluebells seed

To save seed from Virginia Bluebells, watch for the blue flowers to drop form the plant[3]. Once this occurs, check every 3-4 days and monitor the small nutlet that will be where a flower was. When the nutlet is close to turning brown, remove the seedhead and place into a container. Green nutlets are not fully developed and should not be harvested.

Then, take it home and separate the seed from the chaff. The seed will be small and hard with a rough texture. Pat the seed dry (if needed) and place into a sealed plastic container or bag, and place into the fridge for storage up to one year.

Do not store the seed in the open at room temperature, as it will lose it’s viability. Seed that is stored in this manner is almost never viable (speaking from my own experience many years ago).

How to grow from seed

In short, to grow Virginia Bluebells from seed you need to either winter sow or cold stratify the properly stored seed for 60 days[3][4]. The planting depth is shallow, just below the soil surface. And the containers with the seed should be kept in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.

After germination in Spring, thin seedlings once true leaves develop. Finally, transplant seedlings to their final location after the seedling has gone dormant (it will go dormant by summer).

Regarding planting depth, if you wish to winter sow or use containers in a somewhat controlled method, you can even get away with just pressing the seed into the soil surface. But before we start planting we need to cover some more important information – namely how to overcome the seeds dormancy.

Breaking the seed dormancy mechanism

The seed from Virginia Bluebells has a dormancy mechanism to prevent premature germination. This stops the seed from germinating in the hot summer temperatures, conditions in which a young seedling may not survive.

To overcome this dormancy mechanism, the easiest manner is to do one of the following options:

  1. Direct sow fresh seed when harvested, if the soil will not dry out completely.
  2. Winter sow the seed (my preferred method).
  3. Cold stratify the seed for 60 days in the refrigerator
  4. Scarify the seed (not recommended)

Before I go into each dormancy mechanism, there is another important consideration for growing Virginia Bluebells from seed that you need to know about. Virginia Bluebells do not like being disturbed when actively growing. This applies to both mature plants and seedlings. The taproot is very tender, and when it’s bone with the soil is disturbed it doesn’t recover very well. Because of this – I do not recommend that you separate seedlings or move any plant while actively growing. And it is better to thin excess seedlings rather than separate and pot-up extra seedlings, like you would do with most plants.

1 – Direct sowing Virginia Bluebells

If you were able to harvest some seed fresh from a plant at the end of Spring, you can plant it immediately near the mother plant, or in another location that has similar growing conditions / sunlight. Plant the seed just beneath the soil surface. It should germinate the following Spring.

2 – Winter sowing Virginia Bluebells

If you have purchased seed, or have harvested your own (and stored it properly, see above sections), then Winter Sowing is probably the easiest way to plant the seed and overcome it’s dormancy mechanism. If you are not familiar with winter sowing, please read my detailed guide. But before you go, there are a few special considerations for Virginia Bluebells.

As I explained a couple sections above, the seedlings do not like to be disturbed when actively growing. So, do not do the ‘Hunk-O-Seedlings’ method until the plants have gone dormant. If using containers, plant as many containers as plants you would like to have, then thin excess seedlings. You’ll have to take my word for it, but when I’ve tried to separate seedlings I have had roughly 50% mortality.

3 – Cold stratifying in the fridge

If you don’t wish to winter sow, you can use the refrigerator to cold stratify the seed. Simply use a thick full sheet paper towel that is folded up, moistened, and placed into a zip-lock bag (and labeled). I have detailed instructions on stratifying seed in the fridge here.

4 – Scarify the seed

Some researchers back in the early 60’s managed to achieve very high germination rates by scarifying the seed. They didn’t use one of the easy methods like sandpaper or a file. Instead they soaked in sulfuric acid[5] and punctured the inner coat. I do not recommend this method as it is easy to damage the tiny seed with any method, and furthermore sulfuric acid can burn your skin and harm you in other ways.

To winter sow Virginia Bluebells

I’m going to give you the steps to Winter Sow Virginia Bluebells here, as I feel it is the most robust way for a backyard gardener to germinate the seed. And please, if you are unfamiliar with winter sowing, see my detailed guide and video here.

  1. Fill a suitable container(s) with moist potting soil, and plant the seed shallow – just beneath the soil surface.
  2. Make sure the containers are covered by using a 1020 tray/dome, or use the milk jug as long as you plant to thin seedlings.
  3. Place the container in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade
  4. After germination, keep the container in morning sun/afternoon shade. And only water in the morning
  5. As summer approaches, the seedling will go dormant. You may think you’ve killed it, but it is ok, it just started it’s “winter nap” early. This is the time to transplant it to it’s final location. As the tender taproot is very sensitive and doesn’t like being moved when actively growing.
Virginia Bluebell seedling (cotyledons) just after germination.

Caring for Virginia Bluebell seedlings

After germination in Spring you should keep the containers in a location that receives 3-6 hours of sun in the morning, and shade in the afternoon. This will give them plenty of sun to photosynthesize, allowing them to grow large, but still protect them from overheating and drying out in hotter afternoon temperatures.

The seedlings you see above I eventually tried to separate. I do not recommend you separate seedlings when they are actively growing (see next photo).
I lost roughly 50% of the above seedlings. They did not appreciate being separated! I would have been better to plant seeds in the above containers, then winter sow.

Transplanting Virginia Bluebells to their final location

Eventually, at the end of Spring or near the start of Summer the seedlings will wilt and go dormant. Pay attention to your seedlings – if they seem healthy, but then over the course of a week they seem to die…don’t worry. It most likely went dormant, which is what happens to all Virginia Bluebells plants (usually by the beginning of Summer). This would be a good time to transplant them to their final location.

Establishing Virginia Bluebells

When grown from seed, Virginia Bluebells will often take 2 or 3 years to flower. This is because they are developing their root system, and it takes a bit of time. This makes sense when you consider that as a spring ephemeral, their growing season is only around four months.

juvenile Virginia Bluebells plants
There are five Virginia Bluebells plants in the above image, all are in year 2, but only one is flowering. This picture was taken in late May, which is about 75% of the way through the growing season.

So, grow your seedlings in large containers to allow for taproot development. Then, get them into the ground after they’ve gone dormant. Perhaps you will get lucky and have some blooms in year 2, but in my experience it won’t happen until year three.

The first time the plant will bloom it will likely be single-stalked, with a few clusters of blooms. In subsequent years it will throw up more stalks and expand.

Video guide

I made a comprehensive video profile on this species. And within it I speak directly about growing from seed. Below is a time-stamped video where I specifically talk about germinating the seed/winter sowing, etc:

Final thoughts

Virginia Bluebells is one of the showiest of our native spring flowers, and arguably one of the easiest to use in landscaping. But, trying to obtain large quantities of plants or bare roots can be costly, and sometimes even impossible as they aren’t always available.

Thus, the more frugal-minded gardeners need to grow them from seed. But, this flower poses a few unique challenges that most other species don’t have – namely the ‘sensitive’ tap-root that doesn’t like disturbance. But with some good planning and following the right steps (winter sowing) we can safely grow a large number of seedlings for minimal cost.

Find more native plants here


[1]Mertensia virginica. USDA NRCS. Accessed 02MAR2024.

[2] – Duncan, Wilbur H., and Marion B. Duncan. Wildflowers of the eastern United States. Vol. 20. University of Georgia Press, 2005.

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

[4] – Charles V. Covell, Jr.. REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY AND POLLINATION ECOLOGY OF MERTENSIA VIRGINICA (L.) PERS. PHD Thesis, 1998 University of Louisville.

[5] – 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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