My hillside is alive with Virginia Bluebells. An amazing sight to behold when it is springtime. This harbinger of spring makes me sing the praises of a beauty that has returned once more. As you can see, a few weeks of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) brings a lot of excitement to my woodland garden every year.
This plant has many common names such as: Virginia cowslip, Roanoke Bells, lungwort, from its supposed use in treating pulmonary disorders, or oyster leaf because of the leaves oyster-like taste.
According to the National Science Foundation, the Cherokee used this plant to treat whooping cough and tuberculosis. Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia Bluebells at Monticello and 19th century garden writers often referred to them as Jefferson’s blue funnel flowers.
As days begin to lengthen in spring Virginia Bluebells emerge through warm soil absorbing as much sunlight as possible until the trees leaf out and shade them with their canopies. These erect plants grow quickly to about 1 to 2 feet. Surrounded by gray-green foliage, nodding bells of pink trumpet shaped flowers then mature into the well-known blue coveted shade. Moths, butterflies and bees, especially female bumblebees that hover in spring, are attracted to their sweet nectar. In fact, only the largest bees have the ability to push their way into the tube-like flowers so bluebells are mainly pollinated by butterflies or moths.
As a member of the Boraginaceae Family, Virginia Bluebells has relatives that many of us are familiar with: Forget-me-not (Myosostis), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), Lungwort (Pulmonaria), Comfrey (Symphytum) or Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum). While most Borage Family members have hairy leaves, both the stems and leaves of Virginia bluebells are smooth.
There are other perennial plants that have bell in their name and should not be confused with Virginia Bluebells. These include Spanish Bells (Hyacinthoides), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and Bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum) where blooms appear more bell shaped as opposed to the funnel shaped Virginia Bluebells flowers.
This herbaceous perennial wildflower is indigenous to moist deciduous woodlands in most of Eastern North America and is classified as a “spring ephemeral.” Ephemeral means short-lived. That is, it is here for a fleeting time and then gone. Spring ephemerals appear when the weather warms up in spring. They leaf out, bloom, go to seed and become dormant in summer heat and shade. This contrasts with other garden perennials that die back in the fall. So, for continuous color it is best to surround them with shade loving plants that will also provide cool cover to the dormant bluebell roots. They grow and spread by persistent underground stems or rhizomes that store the energy collected during the plant’s brief growing season. In locations where they are thriving, they will happily spread seeds as well.
Give me shade or give me death” is considered to be the motto for Virginia Bluebells. Therefore, they should only be planted in partially to fully shaded, moist and well drained areas. Sun in early spring that steadily increases to shade and never boggy soil. When planted they may take a few years to establish but it is worth the wait. Eventually they may grow singly in multi-stemmed clumps or form large colonies. On the East Coast, the state of Virginia claims to have the largest stand of bluebells where hundreds of acres of them carpet the low woodlands along the banks of Bull Run and Cub Run. There a “Bluebell Walk” is sponsored every April. For many, a stunning springtime view comes from a carpet of blue.