Wildflower of the Year 1989
Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
Virginia-cowslip, Roanoke-bells, lungwort, and oysterleaf.
Derivation of Latin name
Linnaeus named the genus Mertensia to honor the 18th-century German botanist Franz Mertens, and the specific name, virginica, referred to the Colony of Virginia.
Few blues in nature rival the blue of Virginia bluebells, and a single clump in a garden or a stand of thousands along a stream is a beautiful sight. The flower buds are nestled in the unusual dark purplish-green foliage as it emerges in early spring. The blossoms are pink in bud, changing to varying shades of blue as they mature, and returning to pink following pollination. Occasionally a white-blossomed plant appears, and the blossoms of a few plants remain pink throughout their blooming period.
Blue, bell-shaped flowers hang in nodding clusters from 1-2′ stems. Each is about an inch long and has a narrow funnel-shaped tube broadening to a shallow bell with a scalloped edge. Flowering stems are coiled while in bud but straighten to a graceful arch as the flowers expand, a habit typical of the Borage Family to which Virginia bluebells belong.
Both the stems and the leaves of Virginia bluebells are smooth, while most Borage Family members have hairy leaves. The 8″-long, succulent, gray-green, basal leaves and the 2-5″ leaves along the stem are oblong and arranged alternately. Lower leaves are supported by long stems or petioles, and upper leaves are usually attached directly to the stem.
Our native bluebells, known botanically as Mertensia virginica, have a host of common names, including those given above. In his correspondence with Peter Collinson of London between 1734 and 1746, John Custis of Williamsburg referred to the Virginia bluebell as the “Mountain blew cowslip.” Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello, and 19th-century garden writers sometimes called them “Jefferson’s blue funnel flowers.” The name lungwort probably comes from its use in treating pulmonary disorders, and oysterleaf from the oyster-like flavor of its leaves.
As surely as rivers rise and spring is fleeting, Virginia bluebells spill across the Virginia landscape blooming for two to three weeks in April. Like other spring ephemerals, they bloom as the days lengthen and the sun warms the forest floor, and by early summer as the tree canopy closes they have completely disappeared. Stream banks, low moist woods, and floodplains are Virginia bluebell’s native habitat. They like moist, medium to rich, alluvial soils that are neutral to slightly acid. They grow both singly in multi-stemmed clumps and in large colonies; a single plant may light up a stream bank, or a carpet of blue may roll across a river bottom.
Other wildflowers that grow and bloom with Virginia bluebells include spring beauty, Dutchman’s-breeches, toothwort, rue-anemone, trout-lily, wild ginger, and violets. Redbud, serviceberry, and dogwood also celebrate spring with the bluebells.
Virginia bluebells grow and spread from rhizomes, persistent underground stems that store energy collected during the plant’s brief growing season. They also increase by seeds, stored in half-inch nutlets that mature as the green growth yellows and the plants go dormant. Often seeds carried downstream by floodwaters establish new colonies.
Because they reseed freely, Virginia bluebells are considered among the more secure of Virginia’s wildflowers; however, the wetland habitats where they flourish have diminished. Leave bluebells and all other wildflowers and native plants undisturbed in the wild. Dig neither plants nor dormant rhizomes, and avoid clearing, draining, or disturbing their habitat. Virginia bluebells are blessings in blue that were here before the settlers arrived; protecting their habitats will ensure they are still here for future generations to enjoy
Bluebells are among the easiest wildflowers to grow and have been a favorite of American and European gardeners since colonial days. They can be grown with bulbs in partially shaded perennial borders, and in clumps or drifts in a woodland garden. In the garden, as in their native habitat, they need a humus-rich soil, adequate moisture in spring, and sun before the trees leaf out. Soil that is moist to wet in spring but dry in summer suits them fine since they go dormant soon after blooming. (Dying foliage should be left to mature naturally.) Their fleshy rhizomes will rot in a poorly drained soil that stays boggy year-round.
The lovely soft blue of Virginia bluebells combines so well with the yellows, pinks, and whites of early spring that it is hard to come up with a bad combination. The gardener’s main challenge is finding companions that share the bluebells’ growing conditions and whose foliage remains to take their place. In well-drained soil that stays moist during summer, ferns, wild ginger, and fall-blooming asters are good choices, as are non-native astilbes and hostas. In soil that becomes somewhat dry in summer try alumroot, green-and-gold, and creamy violets.
Bluebells self-sow in spots where they are growing well and are easily propagated by division when the foliage is dying back. Seed sown in an outdoor bed immediately after collection receives the moist cold period needed for spring germination. Seed can also be started in a flat of moist growing medium, covered with plastic, and kept in the refrigerator for six weeks. Remove to a warm room or outdoors for germination.
Where it grows
Virginia bluebells grow in open woods and bottomlands from New York to South Carolina and west to Minnesota, Kansas, and Alabama.
Where to see it in Virginia
In Virginia, the species is found in about half of the counties in the western part of the state and in most of the Piedmont, but, according to the Atlas of the Virginia Flora (1992), it is conspicuously absent in most of Virginia’s Coastal Plain, although it grows in gardens there.
Virginia bluebells are particularly abundant in the Potomac River watershed and along the Shenandoah and Cacapon rivers. Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville, Virginia, claims the largest stand of bluebells on the East Coast. There hundreds of acres of bluebells carpet the low woodlands along the banks of Bull Run and Cub Run, where annual flooding has helped them spread. The park sponsors a “Bluebell Walk” in April each year.
Caution to gardeners!
Gardeners should be sure that Virginia bluebells and other native plants purchased for home gardens are nursery-propagated plants, not wild-collected.
For a list of retail sources of nursery-propagated plants and responsibly collected seed, visit our Plant Nursery Page or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Virginia Native Plant Society 400 Blandy Farm Lane – Unit 2, Boyce, VA 22620.
Text from 1989 Virginia Wildflower of the Year brochure
Nancy Hugo, Author
Nancy Arrington and Marion Blois Lobstein, Contributors
Edited for the Web by Stanwyn G. Shetler, Dec. 16, 1997