Description & Overview
Virginia Bluebells are one of the first indicators that spring has arrived, often blooming at the same time as daffodils and tulips in mid-April through mid-May. This Wisconsin native ephemeral perennial is one of the few naturally occurring true blue flowers. Purplish pink buds turn into blue, fragrant, tubular-shaped flowers. These delicate beauties grow to be roughly two feet tall and die back to the ground in early summer as they go dormant.
You may also know this plant as Eastern Bluebells, Lungwort Oysterleaf, Virginia Cowslip, Roanoke Bells, or Blue Funnel Flowers.
After a long winter, as most of them seem to be, Virginia Bluebells will eagerly push forth, reaching for the sun, and providing us with some much-needed visual candy. If you’ve ever seen a carpet of Virginia Bluebells in spring, then you’ve seen something truly breathtaking. They are native from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic, mainly found along river basins and mesic floodplain forests, where they luxuriate in rich, moist soil. Virginia Bluebells do best where they can stay cool and are most at home in shadier wildflower gardens, and along woodland, river, and pond edges. Proper siting is key to their success as they cannot tolerate full sun or dry areas and seem to languish in poorly drained clay soil. Shady, moist, but well-drained areas are the ticket!
Smooth deep purple leaves emerge in spring with flower buds safely snuggled within this cradle of foliage. As leaves mature, they turn emerald green while the flowers begin to unfurl on stems 1 to 2 feet tall. Sweetly scented clusters of nodding pink buds shift to blue as a result of the pH of the sap changing from acidic to alkaline.
An ephemeral perennial, when flowers are spent they will recede to the ground and all but disappear. Don’t worry – they’re not dead! They are taking a nap for the rest of the season and will come back even more vigorous the following year. Interplanting Virginia Bluebells with other plants is the best way to mask their absence once they go dormant.
Virginia Bluebells can form colonies and will self-seed and naturalize an area. Give them plenty of room to spread over time, or plan on dividing and replanting. Grown in masses, they are a sight to behold.
A smorgasbord to pollinators early in the season, Virginia Bluebells are visited by Bumblebees, Long-tongued Bees, Hummingbird Moths, Syrphid Flies, Skippers, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Flowers tend to last approximately three weeks, and if fertilized, in summer they will produce wrinkled nutlets containing four seeds. Insects attracted to the scent will in turn draw insectivorous birds.
Easy to care for, Virginia Bluebells rarely need maintenance other than division when desired. Left to their own devices, they will re-seed and naturalize an area. This is a great reason to use them in areas where their spread is desired.
As mentioned earlier, if division is necessary, do so when the plants are dormant as their long taproots don’t respond well to being moved. Mark where your plants are while visible so that you can easily find them when ready to separate and replant.
Mulching around the base of the plants will keep roots cool and moist. In the fall, allow leaves to cover them to provide protection from snow and freezing temperatures.
No serious insect or disease problems.
Tolerant of Black Walnut and are both deer and rabbit-resistant.
In the same family as Lungwort – the Borage family – it’s said that when pioneers arrived and laid eyes upon Virginia Bluebells, they believed them to be much like lungwort and tried to use the plant to treat lung ailments. Needless to say, it did not work. The stems and leaves of Virginia Bluebells are smooth, while lungwort and most other plants within the Borage family have hairy leaves. This is a useful tidbit to avoid any confusion!
The genus name Mertensia honors the German botanist and botany professor Franz Karl Mertens (1764-1831) while the specific epithet virginica means “of Virginia” in reference to where it was discovered.
The Cherokee used Mertensia virginica as a remedy for tuberculosis and to soothe whooping cough. The Iroquois used a decoction of the roots to treat venereal disease as well as an antidote to snake bites and ingested poisons.
Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia Bluebells at Monitcello of his garden observation books, “a bluish colored, funnel-formed flower in lowgrounds hence the common name of “Blue Funnel Flowers.”
Many poets and songwriters have written and sung about the Virginia Bluebell, including Emily and Anne Bronte, Walter de la Mare, and most recently, Miranda Lambert in her song titled “Virginia Bluebell.”
Carrying the weight on the end of a limb
You’re just waiting for somebody to pick you up again
Shaded by a tree, can’t live up to a rose
All you ever wanted was a sunny place to grow
Pretty little thing, sometimes you gotta look up
And let the world see all the beauty that you’re made of
‘Cause the way you hang your head nobody can tell
You’re my Virginia Bluebell
My Virginia Bluebell
As an ephemeral, the goal is to plant Virginia Bluebells alongside plants that don’t die-back at the same time leaving “holes” in the garden. Intermingle amongst other shade-loving perennials such as:
- Giant Solomon’s Seal
- Bleeding Heart
- Canada Wild Ginger
- Pennsylvania Sedge
- Ferns such as Maidenhair or Cinnamon
Plant around spring-blooming native trees that enjoy similar conditions such as Eastern Redbud or Pagoda Dogwood and to help keep the soil cool for these shade-loving ephemerals. Virginia Bluebells also provide spectacular color contrast when planted amongst tulips, daffodils, and other spring-blooming bulbs.