How to Grow and Care for Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebell plant with small purple trumpet-shaped flowers surrounded by rounded leaves

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Virginia bluebells ring in spring, blooming from March to May, depending on your zone, for about three weeks. Mertensia virginica displays pink buds that open to beautiful blue trumpet-shaped blooms. The flowers have a light, sweet, barely detectable scent. Their tight bell clusters attract the season's first buzzing bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Virginia bluebells are ephemeral plants that grow best under the shade of a tree. They grow about two feet tall and wide with rounded, smooth leaves ranging from grey-green to blue-green. These long-lived, perennial plants grow from rhizomes or persistent underground stems that store energy. These plants are not considered invasive since they are native to the United States, although they can grow aggressively by self-seeding and spreading easily. They usually disappear when the heat of summer sets in.

The rhizomes are best planted in the fall or early spring as soon as the ground thaws. They are not indoor plants, although they can be started as seedlings indoors and transplanted outdoors in the spring. Rabbits and deer generally steer clear of Virginia bluebells.

Common Name Virginia bluebells, eastern bluebells, cowslips
Botanical Name Mertensia virginica
Family Boraginaceae
Plant Type Perennial, rhizome
Mature Size 2 ft. tall, 2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Partial, full
Soil Type Moist
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Blue
Hardiness Zones 3-8 (USDA)
Native Area North America

Virginia Bluebells Care

The cool blue hues of Virginia bluebells contrast beautifully with yellow daffodils. Establish bare-root rhizomes in early spring or fall. If planting in the spring, stratify or cool the rhizome in the refrigerator for at least 60 days. This plant requires moisture and gradually warming soil temperatures to spur its growth. Virginia bluebells prefers a shady spot that gets moderate filtered sunlight.

How to Plant

These herbaceous flowers thrive in moist soil supplemented with organic fertilizer. Plant one to three inches deep and space 12 to 18 inches apart. Watch the erect Virginia bluebells clump emerge, forming a field of fleeting color through early summer. Place them in a dappled shade border or wildflower area where later-blooming perennials will fill in the gap after they've died back.

Virginia bluebell plant with light purple trumpet-like flowers on edge of branch closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Virginia bluebell plant with small light purple trumpet-like flowers and buds surrounded by rounded leaves

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Virginia bluebell flowers with light purple trumpet-like petals and buds closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Virginia bluebell plant with small purple trumpet-like flowers in sunlight

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida


Virginia bluebells are happy in partial to full shade. Welcomed by the morning sun, they will continue to flower but will require more water. These bell blooms enjoy some dappled sunlight beneath an old tree. Here, they make good companions for shade-loving Solomon’s Seal, hosta, and ferns, which offer an array of lush green foliage. Their blues contrast softly with pink lamium groundcover and astilbe.


Native to the cool woodlands of eastern North America, Virginia bluebells crave regular watering. Cover newly planted rhizomes with mulch, preferably composted leaves to promote rich soil. Establish strong roots with consistent yet moderate watering. Imagine how the roots soak up the water, not drown in it. Keep the soil moist (not soggy), especially during the first season when the plants are getting established.

Temperature and Humidity

Many seeds you sow in your garden need warm temperatures for germination and growth. Virginia Bluebells are different. They like cold and moist environments, like woodland marshes or watershed regions. The foliage will die back before the heat and humidity arrive in midsummer.


About 10 days before planting, work two to four inches of compost (or a 10-10-10 fertilizer) into the soil. This will promote flowering and help the soil retain moisture. Whether your soil is sand or clay, it will benefit from the extra nutrition.

Types of Bluebells

Botany experts say over 60 bluebell species exist in the Mertensia genus. Virginia bluebells are the most common type of Mertensia bluebell. What differentiates the other bluebells is the terrain and habitats where they grow.

Despite the similar name, English and Spanish bluebells are unrelated to Virginia bluebells. They are native to Europe and are in the Hyacinthoides genus and asparagus family; meanwhile, Mertensia bluebells are in the borage family and native to North America.

  • Mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata): Also called tall, fringed bluebells, these plants are native to the western United States. These plants grow twice as high and wide as Virginia bluebells and have a hairy texture on their leaves.
  • Sea bluebells (Mertensia maritima): Also called oyster plants, it looks a lot like Virginia bluebells but grows in northern seaside locations in rocky terrain.
  • Alpine bluebells (Mertensia alpina): Native to the Rocky Mountains, growing 12 to 18 inches tall
  • Aspen bluebells (Mertensia arizonica): This type grows in the Mountainous West part of the United States, primarily in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada.
  • Short-styled bluebells (Mertensia brevistyla): It does not have the long corolla or nodding habit but has small shallow cups; this plant grows about 4 to 16 inches tall in meadows west of the Mississippi River.


You can cut back the plants when the foliage has turned completely yellow or brown. Also, consider deadheading the flowers as soon as they wilt to prevent the spread of seeds from the flowerheads.

Propagating Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells are self-sufficient. Once you've given these spring blooms a happy home, they can care for themselves. These plants spread out by rhizomes and self-seeding. You can propagate by seed or by division. Here's how to propagate by division in the fall or early spring when the plants are dormant:

  1. You'll need a hand shovel, a sterilized knife, and a new planting location, preferably in a shady spot.
  2. Dig up the long taproot and carefully cut the rhizome apart to divide it.
  3. Lay the root pieces on a tray and let them sit for a few days to scab over and dry.
  4. Plant the rhizomes in moist soil enriched with compost about 1 inch deep. Space out pieces at least 12 to 18 inches apart. Keep the planting spot moist but not soggy.

How to Grow Virginia Bluebells From Seed

Seeds need a period of cold and moisture to germinate, otherwise known as stratification. The seeds are originally layered (stratified) in the woodland environment between moist soil. Exposure to the cold stops the seeds from germinating at the wrong time.

To preserve the seeds indoors, mix them in moist sand and store them in the refrigerator (which provides just the right temperature between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit) for four to six weeks. Sow seeds in pots six to eight weeks before the last frost in spring. Transplant seedlings in the ground as the ground becomes workable in the early spring.

Potting Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells flower in both patches and pots, although they will not grow well as mature plants indoors. Plant them in a container with drainage holes to ensure the soil stays moderately moist. Place the plant outside in a shady or partially shady location.


Virginia bluebells go dormant in winter and should not need much protection. However, if you're in the coldest zones of the United States, put 2 to 3 inches of leaf mulch around the stem to insulate the roots. Remove the mulch in the spring. Mulch is not needed in warmer zones.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Virginia bluebells do not have any serious insect or disease problems. However, snails and slugs might frequent new shoots. They may eat holes in leaves or entire stems or make a meal of seedlings and tender transplants. The evidence they were there: a tell-tale silvery, slimy trail. Sprinkle diatomaceous earth to stop these gastropods from invading the plant or leave beer traps for them.

Uncommonly, these plants might experience root rot, powdery mildew, rust, and leaf smut—all fungal diseases that might pop up in overly moist environments, a breeding ground for fungal spores. Signs of these diseases are distorted leaf growth, spots on leaves, browning or yellowing of leaves, and unseasonal leaf drop. Try organic solutions for controlling fungi from spreading, like sulfur, potassium bicarbonate, and horticultural oils.

How to Get Virginia Bluebells to Bloom

These plants usually bloom in their second or third year if grown from seeds. Established Virginia bluebells bloom reliably in spring from March to May for about three weeks. They have a fresh sweet scent that's only detectable if you're in a large patch of flowers. They are commonly visited by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds and rely on these pollinators to fertilize their flowers.

Virginia bluebells do not like to be transplanted, so they might refuse to bloom after transplantation. They might need a year or two to establish if you only transplanted the rhizome in spring.

These flowering plants do not like to be dry. Virginia bluebells require a lot of moisture and warmer temps—at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit—for seeds to germinate or to help their rhizomes break dormancy.

To help flowering, add compost or a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) to the soil before planting. These plants do not rebloom. Deadhead flowers after they wilt to prevent the spread of seeds from this self-sowing plant; if you want a larger patch next year, leave them in place or collect the seeds for sowing later.

Common Problems With Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells are mostly disease- and pest-resistant plants. But because they thrive in moist, shady environments, they can be susceptible to fungal infections.

New Leaves Appear Crinkly or Distorted

A disease has likely affected your plant if new leaves emerge crinkly or distorted. In most cases, powdery mildew will cause stunted growth. Mature leaves may turn brown or yellow. You also will notice a powdery white or gray fungus on the tops of the leaves. This is caused by too much crowding, poor air circulation, or insufficient light.

To prevent the spread, remove dead or diseased leaves since they can still have spores and continue to spread. Fungicides will not cure already diseased plants but can control the spread to the rest of the patch. Use organic fungicide solutions, sulfur, potassium bicarbonate, and horticultural oils.

Forgetting Where Its Planted

Place markers where you have planted your Virginia bluebells. It is common to forget exactly where you've planted them since they die back to ground level by midsummer and leave no trace once cut back. You often do not have any visible indicator where they are below ground. Markers will help you remember not to disturb the rhizomes underground when planting your summer annuals or bulbs in the fall.

  • Do Virginia bluebells spread quickly?

    Virginia bluebells can spread rapidly in two ways: self-seeding after each bloom and a spreading underground rhizome root system. They may aggressively establish colonies of flowers self-sufficiently, but they are not invasive since they disappear by summer after their growing season.

  • What animals do Virginia bluebells attract?

    Virginia bluebells are a magnet for pollinators of all kinds, like long-tongued bees (bumblebees), butterflies, skippers, hummingbird moths, flower flies (syrphids), bee flies, and hummingbirds. Conversely. deer and rabbits avoid these plants.

  • When do Virginia bluebells bloom?

    Virginia bluebells reliably bloom from March to May (sometimes in early June). They do not like high heat and usually make their exit in the hot weather.

  • What is a Virginia bluebell's lifespan?

    A Virginia bluebell parent plant is considered a long-lived ephemeral, but each plant may only live about five years. It's hard to say since these plants are efficient self-seeders, dropping seeds for future growth in the next season.

Article Sources
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  1. Nazaire M, Wang XQ, Hufford L. Geographic origins and patterns of radiation of Mertensia (Boraginaceae)American Journal of Botany. 2014;101(1):104-118.