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This common, easy-to-grow wildflower displays a kaleidoscope of shifting colors and spreads to form enormous colonies in early-spring sunlight and rich, well-drained soils. The leaves emerge with subtle metallic, purplish-green hues that act as a sunscreen against excessive bright light. They turn bluish green as they lengthen and fill out. Puckered, pinkish buds are arranged in a spiraling cyme inflorescence, and the colors morph from pinks to blues as the buds expand into trumpet-shaped flowers with scalloped edges. A white-flowering form, forma berdii, is rare in the wild. The nodding clusters of flowers are usually packed with bees and other pollinators attempting to reach the nectar deep within the funnel-shaped tube. The plant blooms for three to four weeks, enveloping the area with lush foliage and enchanting bell-shaped flowers (hence the common name). A few weeks after blooming, small seed capsules form and the plant soon fades into the soil. Because bare ground is left behind, it’s prudent to populate the area with long-growing companion plants that share the same growing conditions, such as ferns, wild ginger, and fall-blooming asters. While Virginia bluebells needs moist to wet conditions in spring, it requires drier soils in summer to avoid rotting rhizomes. The plant spreads through these rhizomes and also through self seeding and myrmecochory, a mutually beneficial process by which ants are enticed to carry seeds equipped with food appendages called elaisomes to their nests, where the seeds later germinate. Another adaptation that is vital to the plant’s survival is the color of its flowers. Bees, which are very important for cross pollination, can only see yellow and blue. The buds of Virginia bluebells contain anthocyanins that render them pink. Before the flowers unfurl, the cell sap turns alkaline and the flowers transform from pink, to purple, and finally to blue. Long-tongued bees use their proboscis to retrieve the nectar from the long tube, but short-tongued bees have to chew a hole at the base of the tube to reach the nectar.  

 

Virginia bluebells goes by several names. Gentleman's breeches and old ladies bonnets refer to the flowers’ similarity to the same clothing items. Lungwort oysterleaf seems like a very odd name for this lovely wildflower. “Lungwort” was either derived from the plant’s use for treating pulmonary disorders or from its similarity to other plants in the lungwort genus, and “oysterleaf” refers to the cooked leaves’ oyster-like flavor. Thomas Jefferson grew bluebells at Monticello, and 19th-century garden writers sometimes called them Jefferson’s blue funnel flowers.  Linnaeus named the genus Mertensia in honor of German botanist Franz Mertens, and virginica refers to the Colony of Virginia.

 

Native habitats include low-lying damp woods, shaded clearings, floodplains, and stream banks. Plant one or two feet apart in partly shady borders, rain gardens,  or woodland gardens. Other plants that bloom simultaneously with Virginia bluebells include spring beauty, dutchman’s-breeches, toothwort, yellow trout lily, wild ginger, violets, redbud, serviceberry, and dogwood.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows 1-2’ tall and 12-18" wide.

 

Performs best in part or full shade.

 

Prefers dry to moist, well-drained soils, including loamy, sandy, and clay. Soil should be kept moist in the spring.

 

Clusters of 5-20 flowers droop from the top of the stalk on one side of the plant April-May. One-inch flowers have 5 petals fused into a narrow tube with flared tips, 5 stamens, and 1 pistil.

 

Alternate, oval-shaped leaves have smooth margins and rounded tips. Succulent lower leaves are up to 8” long and supported by petioles, while upper leaves are 2-5” long and sessile (without stems).

 

Smooth, hairless, light green central stem grows from a taproot and is nearly hollow and occasionally branching.

 

Wildlife Value:

Host plant in New England area for dark marbled carpet moth. Primary pollinators are honey, bumble, anthophorid, and mason bees. Other visitors include the giant bee fly, butterflies, skippers, and sphinx moths. Ruby-throated hummingbirds may also collect nectar from the flowers.

 

The large leaves provide coverage for many kinds of wildlife during spring. White-tailed deer occasionally browse the foliage.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Cherokees used the plant to treat tuberculosis and whooping cough. The Haudenosaunee used the roots to treat venereal disease and as an antidote for various poisons.

Bluebells, Virginia, Mertensia virginica

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