Complete Guide to Virginia Bluebells – Mertensia Virginica


Nothing signifies the arrival of Spring more than a roadside or clearing packed with the beautiful blooms of Virginia Bluebells. This early Spring bloomer can make for an absolutely stunning display before the neighbors have anything blooming! Want to learn about this wonderful plant that attracts and how you can grow them? Then read on!

Virginia Bluebells is a herbaceous perennial wildflower native to the Eastern United States. Scientifically known as Mertensia virginica, this Spring ephemeral will give your yard a splash of pink, blue, and purple as the blooms open and fade. Growing up to 2′ tall (60 cm), this plant attracts many bees.

Contents

Virginia Bluebells Reference Table

Common NameVirginia Bluebells, Virginia Blue Bells
Scientific nameMertensia virginica
Native Range, USDA ZoneEastern United States, USDA Zones 3-8
Bloom TimeMarch-May
Bloom Duration, Color3-4 weeks, Pink to Blue
Height18″-24″ (45cm – 75cm)
Spacing/Spread1′-1.5’ (30-45cm)
Light RequirementsPartial sun, Full Shade
Soil TypesSand, Loam. But will work in clay if well drained.
MoistureWet to Medium Moisture, but well-drained soil
Fauna Associations / Larval HostBees, skippers, Sphinx Moth, Hummingbird Moth
Sowing DepthSurface, or just under soil
StratificationMost references say 30-60 days. Seed must be stored in refrigerator, sealed

What is Virginia Bluebells?

Virginia Bluebells is one of the best harbingers of Spring! The beautiful blue/pink clusters of flowers that hang down resemble bells, hence it’s common name. This is one of the first plants to emerge, breaking winter dormancy before almost all other native plants except for Skunk Cabbage [1].

Mertensia virginica

When planted in mass, you are treated to a blue carpet of flowers that is packed with Bumblebees and other pollinators. Many plants are written about as being ‘bee friendly’. However Virginia Bluebells seems to not just be good for bees, but greatly improving their survival.

If left to their own devices, Virginia Bluebells can form beautiful colonies. This is more likely to occur if the soil is rich in organic matter, and the area receives partial sun and moist soil.

See Virginia Bluebells in Spring, or not at all.

Virginia Bluebells are known as Spring ephemeral flowers. So, they will emerge and bloom before the surrounding trees have leafed out. This is an evolutionally strategy to allow them to obtain sunlight before the tree canopy blocks it out, and temperatures are warm enough.

A few weeks after blooming small seed capsule/nutlets will form. Shortly after that the stems will fall, and leaves will wilt. The entire plant will fade into the soil, and you will never know it was there until the following Spring, when the lifecycle will restart.

Virginia Bluebell Identification

Virginia Bluebells Stalk / Stem

There will be a light green central stalk/stem that will be 1-2.5′ tall (30-75 cm).  The stalk is smooth/hairless and will have occasional branching.

Virginia Bluebells Leaves

Virginia Bluebells will have alternate leaves along the stalk that are 4-7″ long (10-18 cm) by ~3″ wide (9 cm).  The shape of the leaves will be oblong, and very smooth to touch.  Margins of the leaf are also smooth, with no serration.

Once you have seen the leaves of Virginia Bluebells, you will have no problem identifying prior to blooming in the field.

Virginia Bluebells Flower

Flowers of Virginia Bluebells are very beautiful.  There will be clusters of blooms (5-20 blooms) from the top of the stalk that kind of hang down, similar to a street lamp.

The blooms are shaped like bells (hence the common name).  When immature, the flower petals are pink, changing to a rich purple-blue as the bloom opens up.

Flowering will last for approximately 3 weeks, when the bloom will dry and generate a fruit.  The fruit will contain several seeds.

Virginia Bluebells seeds on stalk

Root

Virginia Bluebells have a woody taproot.

Why you should grow Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells offers one of the showiest floral displays of any native plant in early Spring. The numerous clusters of bell-shaped blooms that dangle in the breeze make this an attractive addition to any garden!

Starting in late Winter to early Spring, the leaves will begin to emerge from their winter slumber. Blooming profusely about a month after emergence.

The amount of bumblebees I see on Virginia Bluebells make this plant a must-have for any bee lover. It has a significant value to pollinators, as there are numerous species of bees that visit for both nectar and pollen [2].

How to propagate, grow and care for Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells is typically not sold in garden centers as a potted plant. It is sometimes available as a bare root. But, you can purchase Virginia Bluebells seed from any number of retailers. We prefer Everwilde Seed, which we link to at our recommended products page. But propagating Virginia Bluebells via seed is slightly challenging, as are all Spring ephemerals [3].

Propagating Virginia Bluebells by seed

Before you grow Virginia Bluebells from seed, you should know that the seed must be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container.

So, if you collect seed from the wild, you should either plant it immediately in a partial to full shaded area in it’s preferred growing conditions. Or, plant on storing it until you decide to winter-sow the seed, or cold stratify it prior to planting in the Spring.

  • But, Virginia Bluebells needs to have at least 30-60 days of cold moist stratification or be winter sowed outside, preferable in January.
  • Plant Virginia Bluebell seeds shallow, just beneath the surface of the soil directly, or in a winter sowing container.
  • Germination will happen once temperatures warm above 70F.

The following video is one where we filmed planting seeds in preparation for winter sowing:

My direct experience germinating Virginia Bluebell seeds

Now, this is a Spring ephemeral. So, allow me to relate some personal experience with growing this plant from seed.

I’ve successfully germinated a number of plants. But, I’ve also killed seedlings too by overwatering. My recommendation is that shortly after true leaves develop, transplant it to its final location and protect the seedling.

A happy bumblebee pollinating Virginia Bluebells

Once the summer temperatures set in, and everything gets hot the seedling will likely vanish. But, the following year you will hopefully have a young, healthy plant emerge with it’s characteristic large oblong leaf. But – you may not get blooms until year 3. So, be patient.

One seedling I planted didn’t bloom for 3 years. But then, there it was, blooming in all its glory!

Propagating Virginia Bluebells by bare root

Bare root Virginia Bluebell plants can be purchased at certain garden centers early in Spring. They are typically sold in packs of 3 for approximately $10. This is the easiest propagation method for Virginia Bluebells.

I myself planted a half-dozen bare roots in 2020, and had good success with the plants emerging. You just plant them, crown up just beneath the surface of the soil.

Growing Conditions for Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells prefer partial sun to full shade, and slightly moist to medium soil. They are naturally found along the edges of woods and streams, flood plains, and inside dense hardwood forests.

For soil types, Virginia Bluebells can be grown in sandy soil or clay. But the soil needs to be well drained. If there is not much organic matter present, you should amend and top-dress with compost.

Caring for Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells don’t require special care once established. When first planting, you can add some compost to be bottom of the hole. The slow release organic matter will help keep the soil retain moisture, but other than that no care should be necessary.

As Virginia Bluebells is a native plant, it doesn’t require special fertilizer or pest control.

Virginia Bluebells uses

Garden Uses of Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells are an excellent native plant to grow in any flower bed, shaded area/garden, or semi-wild area. You can almost treat them like Spring bulbs as they start growing so early, and vanish by mid-summer. So, you can have dozens of plants that put on a beautiful display, and then fade to allow other native perennials to take over.

Virginia Bluebells, fading away for the year. This picture was taken on 31MAY2020.

Virginia Bluebells are Compatible with Black Walnut Trees

Virginia Bluebells have coevolved with Black Walnut Trees. They are not effected by Juglone. Virginia Bluebells can tolerate growing near Black Walnut Trees.

Medicinal Uses

Although Native American Tribes utilized Virginia Bluebells medicinally, it should be noted that Virginia Bluebells contains Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which are toxic to humans.

That being said, the Cherokee and Iroquois utilized Virginia Bluebells medicinally. They used the plant to treat pulmonary, tuberculosis, and a venereal aid. [6]

Do Virginia Bluebells Spread?

Virginia Bluebells spread via self-seeding. In optimum conditions, the have the ability to form large colonies that makes for an absolutely stunning display of blue, pink, and lavender.

Are Virginia Bluebells Invasive?

Virginia Bluebells are not invasive within their native range, since they are native and belong there! But, in their preferred growing conditions they can become aggressive. However, this is generally not a concern as they can be pulled/dug fairly easily.

Wildlife, pests, and diseases that can effect Virginia Bluebells

Deer / Rabbits

Virginia Bluebells are deer and rabbit resistant. I’ve never noticed any herbivore damage to these plants.

Pollinators

Virginia Bluebells attract a wide variety of pollinators including numerous species of bees, hummingbirds, and some butterflies.

Excuse the poor focus! But this was my best ‘action shot’ of the day!

Disease

The only disease I’m aware of for Virginia Bluebells is root rot from being to too wet of conditions. Otherwise, this plant is tough and disease resistant.

Virginia Bluebells are threatened by invasive species

Like many native species, Virginia Bluebells have come under threat from true invasive species such as the Bradford Pear and Amur Honeysuckle [4] [5].

These invasive shrubs and trees leaf out earlier than our native hardwoods and steal the sunlight Virginia Bluebells needs to survive. In fact, they threaten nearly all Spring Ephemeral plants that rely on bare trees in early Spring for their photosynthesis giving sunlight.

Where you can buy Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebell seed is readily available at numerous seed companies. We’ve had great success with one company in particular, which we link to at our recommended products page.

Purchase Seed

We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)

Read more about other Early Spring Flowers….

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References:

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

[2] – Macior, Lazarus W. “Pollination Ecology of Vernal Angiosperms.” Oikos, vol. 30, no. 3, 1978, pp. 452–460. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3543340. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

[3] – Gerken Golay, Michaeleen E., “Species for Iowa Woodland Planting and Restoration” (2013). Leopold Center Pubs and Papers. 99.
http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/leopold_pubspapers/99

[4] – McKinney, A.M., Goodell, K. Shading by invasive shrub reduces seed production and pollinator services in a native herb. Biol Invasions 12, 2751–2763 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-009-9680-4

[5] – Conover, Denis and Tim Sisson. “Resurgence of Native Plants after Removal of Amur Honeysuckle from Bender Mountain Preserve, Ohio.” Ecological Restoration, vol. 34 no. 3, 2016, p. 187-190. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/628160.

[6] – Roeder, E.; Wiedenfeld, H.; Edgar, J. A., Pyrrolizidine alkaloids in medicinal plants from North America. Die Pharmazie – An International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Volume 70, Number 6, June 2015, pp. 357-367(11). https://doi.org/10.1691/ph.2015.4873 Retrieved 18JAN2021

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 six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! 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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