Virginia Bluebells Plant Profile

Virginia Bluebells budding. Photo by Jim Schlett / Getty Images.

Jim Schlett / Getty Images

Do you have a partial shade garden that could use some early color? Virginia Bluebells ring in spring. The Mertensia genus displays pink buds that open to beautiful blue, trumpet shaped blooms. Leaves are rounded and smooth, ranging from grey-green to blue-green. What makes them truly special is their tight bell clusters attract the new year’s first buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies.

Botanical Name Mertensia virginica
Common Name Virginia Bluebells
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size Two feet tall and two feet wide
Sun Exposure Partial to full shade
Soil Type Rich and moist
Soil pH Circumneutral (7)
Bloom Time Spring to early summer
Flower Color Blue
Hardiness Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Native Area Eastern North America
Blooming Virginia Bluebells. Photo by Dennis Govoni / Getty Images.
Dennis Govoni / Getty Images.

How to Grow Virginia Bluebells

To welcome this magic into your garden, establish bare-root rhizomes in early spring. 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 Virginia Bluebells emerge, forming a field of fleeting color through early summer.

Light

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.

Water

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

Most if not all the seeds you sow in your garden probably love warm temperatures. Virginia Bluebells are different. They like it cold.

Seeds need a period of cold and moisture to germinate. This treatment is known as stratification. In the woodland environment, the seeds are originally layered (stratified) between moist soil. Being exposed to the cold stops the seeds from germinating at the wrong time. When the seeds receive this “cold treatment” outside in the fall, they can be damaged by animals or inclement weather.

To keep them safe indoors, mix seeds in moist sand and store in the refrigerator (which provides just the right temperature between 34 °F and 41 °F) for four to six weeks. Then sow seeds in pots six to eight weeks before the last frost in spring. 

Fertilizer

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.

Propagating Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebells are self-sufficient. Once you’ve given these spring blooms a happy home, they can take care of themselves. Plants spread by both rhizomes and self-seeding. Propagation is possible but challenging. You can propagate by seed or by divisions. Dig up and carefully cut the rhizomes apart. Like other rhizomes and bulbs, they need to dry before replanting. Only move their long taproots in the fall or early spring when the plants are dormant.

Toxicity

According to the ASPCA, Virginia Bluebells are non-toxic to cats, dogs and horses. Still, Vital Pet Health and Blue Cross for Pets in the U.K. caution our canine friends to avoid this popular plant in the British woodlands. Dogs tend to nibble on the bluebells on walks and the bulb may cause vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. Severe poisoning is rare.

Being Grown in Containers

Beloved in the United Kingdom and the United States, it’s no wonder gardeners love to put them on display. Virginia Bluebells flower in both patches and pots.

Their ephemeral hues contrast beautifully with yellow daffodils. Plant in a container with draining holes to ensure the soil stays moderately moist. Place in part shade so that the bluebells, and the daffodils if you so choose, can thrive in part shade. Both the bells and daffodils are deer and rabbit resistant—plant these beauties with peace of mind in winter and enjoy the show in spring.