Virginia Bluebells -A Complete Guide To Mertensia Virginica

Virginia Bluebells are one of the earliest native wildflowers to bloom in the central and eastern United States in Spring. You may notice these along the forest edge, in open woods, or even in full sun if shaded in the afternoon. These perennials can be exceptionally showy in an otherwise drab landscape!

Virginia Bluebells is a herbaceous perennial wildflower native to the Eastern United States[1]. 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 numerous species of bee and butterfly[2][3].

*Note – there are many other species in the Mertensia genus that are native to North America. What that means is that if you are in a different part of the country and are seeing blue, bell-shaped flowers it is likely one of these other species. I made a detailed guide covering the most common species you may encounter here.

But Virginia Bluebells is truly one of my favorite wildflowers in the Spring. Partly this has to do with how you encounter it in the wild – you normally come across large colonies in the woods or along the forest edge rather than isolated plants. And when it comes to flowers, visually there is strength in numbers.

What you are seeing is an absolute massive patch of Virginia Bluebell flowers in an open forest.

But the blue flowers contrasting against the green foliage just looks great. If you throw in some other Spring Ephemerals like Spring Beauty, violets, Rue Anemone or Dutchman’s Breeches, then you can almost have yourself a real-life impressionist painting.

But you can grow these in your own yard, planting them in the same manner you would common exotic spring bulbs like daffodils or tulips. Just make sure they don’t dry out completely and it should be ok, as the outside temperatures are generally cool in Spring, and the soil rarely dries out.

This is a mature specimen I have growing in a flower bed in my front yard. A single plant can grow 2-3′ wide with multiple flowering stems.

In this guide I will teach you everything there is to know about these plants, as I’ve been growing them myself since about 2015. I’ve learned how to safely transplant them, grow them from seed, and successfully use them in landscaping.


  • The genus, Mertensia, is named for Franz Karl Mertensia (1764-1831), a German Botanist
  • Virginia Bluebells is a Spring Ephemeral, meaning it will have a short season of growth. Although they put on a beautiful spring display, by summer they will have died back to ground.
  • One of the earlier flowers for pollinators, Virginia Bluebells has been documented to feed 18 different species of native bee
  • Was used medicinally by several Native American Tribes

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[4].

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.

Native Range

The primary native range of Virginia Bluebells is from the Missouri River to the Atlantic Ocean, and then from North Alabama to Southern Canada.

Map showing native range of Virginia Bluebells. References [1]

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
References [1][2][3][4]

What are the Benefits of Virginia Bluebells

I’m going to cover the specific benefits in a moment. But really though, it would be great if more people used our Spring ephemeral flowers in place of, or at least to compliment the oh-so-common exotic spring Daffodils, tulips, and crocus. While our native flowers may not bloom as early as some of the exotics, they are still beautiful and do provide food for our native pollinators. So, please consider this when making your landscaping choices, as with Virginia Bluebells you have an opportunity to add beauty to your yard in Spring while doing something for the environment at the same time.


Mass plantings or colonies of Virginia Bluebells are absolutely gorgeous. A marvel to be held in semi-open woods or along the edge of the woods, they make for an absolutely stunning display. And there are lots of them waiting to be discovered in the state parks and natural areas. I often find the most dramatic displays off the beaten path in public hunting areas or parks (there is not much hunting in Spring).


Of all the flowers that bloom early in Spring, Virginia Bluebells will offer pollen and nectar as a reward to a variety of pollinators. This makes them particularly valuable to native bees, who are often waking up from hibernation near the same time Virginia Bluebells begin blooming.


As it is a Spring flower, and it’s growing season ends before the heat of summer, this means that Virginia Bluebells can be grown in a wide variety of areas. In general the soil stays moist in Spring, meaning that there is always available moisture for the plant should the temperatures rise. But the often cool temperatures mean this water demand is somewhat limited anyway. And, the plant will be dormant by the time the heat of summer sets in.

Identification and Characteristics


There will be single or multiple stalks that will be 1-2.5′ tall (30-75 cm).  The stalk is smooth/hairless and will have occasional branching.


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[2]. Basal leaves of the same shape and size are found on many plants, and are the only visible foliage of plants too young to bloom.


Flowers of Virginia Bluebells are very beautiful.  There will be clusters (cymes) of flowers (typically 5-20) 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[2].

Flowering lasts for just about a month for a single plant. But, blooming will commence based on growing conditions and soil temperatures. So, if one has several clusters of this plant planted in their yard in different lighting, the overall blooming period can last up to six weeks.


Virginia Bluebells have a woody taproot.

Growing Conditions

irginia 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. It should be able to grow, bloom, and thrive every year without extra effort from you as long as it is planted in preferred growing conditions.

Is Virginia Bluebells invasive?

Virginia Bluebells are native, and by definition, cannot be invasive. They will self-seed in optimum conditions of part-sun and medium-moist to moist soil. However, this takes many years, and thus are not very aggressive.

Do Virginia Bluebells spread?

Within their most preferred growing conditions of part-sun/part-shade, and moist to medium-moist soil, Virginia Bluebells will spread via self-seeding over many years. If you are planting them in the woods or in shaded flower beds they will not take over unless you allow them to over a long period of time.

Video guide

I made a comprehensive video profile on Virginia Bluebells (from my YouTube channel). You can watch it below – I’ve got some great footage:

How to propagate Virginia Bluebells

How to grow from seed

I have a detailed post covering the exact methods to successfully save seed, and then germinate it. You can find those details here. But I will give you the simple condensed version below.

Also, I recommend planting seed in larger containers (3.5″ square x 3.5″ deep minimum) to allow for better seedling development. Then, just thin unwanted seedlings.

But, below you will find the exact steps to grow this plant from seed.

  1. You will need to winter sow (my preferred method) or cold-stratify the seed in the fridge for sixty days[3][5]
  2. Fill a suitable container(s) with moist potting soil, and plant the seed shallow – just beneath the soil surface.
  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.

Planting bare roots

Virginia Bluebells can be purchased as bare roots, but it is not always available. This is similar how you can buy Liatris Corms in Spring at many stores, or Dahlias, etc. This is by far the easiest method to establish a few plants, but they are not cheap. In my experience a few bare roots will cost around $15. But many local garden centers carry them, and even some large big-box stores.

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Virginia Bluebells


28 Species of pollinator have been documented including long and short-tongue bees, several pollinating flies, around six species of butterfly, as well as hummingbirds[6]. The most frequent pollinators have been observed to be the two-spotted and endangered rusty patch bumblebee[5].

One other interesting observation I have is that while I cannot find any references as to what insect eats the leaves, I have seen clear evidence of some caterpillar or bug that is feeding on the foliage of Virginia Bluebells. See the below photo, which was taken in April 2023. You can clearly see the hole in the leaf that some hungry insect made.

Deer and Rabbits

Deer will occasionally eat the leaves of Virginia Bluebells, but it is not a preferred food source[3]. That being said, if you are trying to establish a population in your yard, it is a good idea to spray Liquid Fence on the leaves during the growing season, as that will keep all herbivores away.


Fungus or other diseases are generally not a problem for Virginia Bluebells. I basically never see any evidence of disease on plants in my yard nor in the wild.

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[7] and Amur Honeysuckle[8].

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 Bluebells is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.

Where to buy seeds

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.)

Uses of Virginia Bluebells

Garden and landscaping

You can use Virginia Bluebells in the same way you would use Spring bulbs such as daffodils or tulips, and they are quite adaptable for most gardens within their native range. They will have an overlapping bloom period with those other plants, but will actually feed pollinators. Plant them in groups of 3 to 5 for a nice display. Mass plantings are also extremely attractive and showy, but considering the plants will go dormant by Summer, you’ve got to consider that you will have a large bare spot.

I particularly like growing them under flowering trees. I have several mature specimens under a Redbud tree in my yard. And plan to do the same to some Dogwood I plan on adding in the future.

If you have a wooded lot, or open woods, you have an amazing opportunity to create a true wildflower forest. That is where you can begin mass planting. Plant some bulbs or seedlings 3-5′ apart, and know that if conditions are right it will fill in over time. You can also intersperse them with other Spring Ephemerals for an even better display.

Companion Plants

Some companion plants that go great with Virginia Bluebells would be other Spring Ephemeral flowers. A few that are commercially available include the following:

Medicinal Uses

Native Americans used Virginia Bluebells medicinally. The Cherokee used the plant to treat respiratory issues such as whooping cough or Tuberculosis. While the Iroquois used a compound containing roots to treat a poison and venereal disease[9].

Final Thoughts

Just about every flower in the world has it’s own unique beauty when examined up close. And Spring flowers seem to do that even more so. But Virginia Bluebells with it’s naturalizing ability in the forest can create mass quantities of plants that are just absolutely stunning. Like Napoleon said, quantity has a certain quality of it’s own, and Virginia Bluebells certainly has the ‘quantity’!

Of all our Spring Ephemerals this one is the easiest to obtain and use in a residential garden. And it would really be great if more people would add it in place of, or at least in a complimentary fashion to the common spring exotic flowers like daffodils and tulips. So, please consider doing so for your own yard. And if you are successful, and it begins naturalizing – consider sharing the new plants with some neighbors!

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] – Macior, Lazarus W. “Pollination Ecology of Vernal Angiosperms.” Oikos, vol. 30, no. 3, 1978, pp. 452–460. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

[6] – Robertson, Charles. “Flowers and insects; lists of visitors of four hundred and fifty-three flowers.” (1928).

[7] – 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).

[8] – 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. .

[9] – Mertensia Virginica, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 02MAR2024.

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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