Virginia Bluebells: Flower Facts

Spring Ephemeral That Creates a Lasting Memory

Photo: Virginia bluebells start out pinkish. They become blue later.
Virginia bluebells actually start out pink, belying their common name. David Beaulieu

Botanical Nomenclature, Classification for Virginia Bluebells

The plant taxonomy of Virginia bluebells is Mertensia virginica. The genus name derives from the last name of botanist, Franz Carl Mertens (1764-1831). This plant is an herbaceous perennial. Moreover, it is grouped with the spring ephemerals (see below).

Flower Facts

As you would expect with a common name like "Virginia bluebells," the selling points for this plant revolve around its flowers -- especially their color.

The flowers will bloom in March or April (depending on where you live). This early-blooming quality is definitely welcome after the long winter. The buds, as well as the new flowers just after they open, do not live up to the common name, being a pink-lavender color. But your patience will soon be rewarded with that true-blue flower color that is something of a Holy Grail among some gardeners. Since the newest buds coming along behind the earliest flowers (recently turned blue) will, once again, be pink-lavender, a two-tone effect results.

The bell-shaped flowers hang down in clusters and draw butterflies. Virginia bluebells grow in clumps reaching as much as 2 feet in height (they are taller than they are wide). They sometimes reseed.

Native Range, Planting Zones, Growing Conditions

As is the case with, for example, Virginia creeper, Virginia bluebells is indigenous not just to the state of the virgin queen (Elizabeth I), but to most of eastern North America.

It can be grown in growing zones 3-8.

You must grow this perennial in partial to full shade. With some plants, you can fudge it, but not with this one: Direct sunlight will burn its leaves. It likes its ground moist but well-drained, so provide a friable soil and adequate springtime water. Work humus into the soil to improve fertility.

Classification as a Spring Ephemeral

Mertensia virginica is termed a "spring ephemeral" because its above-ground growth vanishes in summer -- flowers, foliage and all. Do not be alarmed at its disappearance, since this is simply the way this perennial "works." It enters a period of dormancy beginning in the summer and will return (if all is right) next spring.

Some of the other earliest bloomers are also considered spring ephemerals, including Dutchman's breeches.

Care, Design Tip, Uses in Landscaping

If you have provided them with the proper growing conditions (see above) and furnish supplemental water during dry springs, there is little else to worry about in the way of care. The leaves of these spring ephemerals will wither away on their own -- there is no care involved on your part.

But since their disappearance will leave a void in your planting bed, you may want to have something around to take their place for color. You can achieve this by using, for example, hostas as companion plants for your Virginia bluebells.

Mass them together and use them as edging plants in a spring flower border. Or since this is, more generally speaking, a plant for shady areas, why not make use of its sky-blue flowers to enhance a woodland garden?

Plants Related to Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells is related to borage (in fact, it is classified as being in the Boraginaceae family). Other relatives include:

  • Comfrey (Symphytum)
  • Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum)
  • Forget-me-not (Myosotis)
  • Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
  • Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)
  • Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)
  • Italian bugloss

Comfrey and hound's tongue look similar to each other, both bearing big, broad leaves. Viper's bugloss is listed as a wild plant in one of the New England field guides, but it is rarely encountered in the wild. A cultivar of Siberian bugloss that is commonly found in people's landscaping is named 'Jack Frost' for its silvery coloration.

Don't Confuse Them With Other "Bells"

Other plants have "bell" in their name, so do not become confused. Examples include:

Harebell is also named "round-leaved bellflower." Its blooms are more bell-shaped than those of Virginia bluebells, which are more funnel-shaped.

A Note About the Shade Requirement

Consider the following scenario:

  1. You brought home a potted Virginia bluebells from a garden center last spring and planted it.
  2. You remember how great it looked, and you eagerly awaited Old Man Winter's exit so you could watch your plant as it emerges and fills out this spring.
  3. But you are disappointed, because what you end up with in year #2 is a rather pusillanimous specimen.

That is, in fact, what happens with many gardeners' Virginia bluebells. The plant blooms in its first full year while it is still quite short. So far, so good (you will be pleasantly surprised, in fact, to see flowers on such a small plant). But even after it puts on a little height, it may never become very robust, instead remaining a scrawny-looking plant with small leaves. Obviously, this is not a good sign.

So what, in these cases, is most often the problem? The problem can be summed up in one word: shade -- or, to be more precise, a lack of shade. Many gardeners new to growing this plant are, indeed, aware of its strict shade needs, but, due to space limitations in their full-shade gardens, simply push the envelope a bit and give it more sunlight than is ideal.

The result is what often happens when one pushes the envelope: Said envelope breaks, and you have to buy a new one. "Give me shade, or give me death": That is Virginia bluebells' motto.

Need more choices for shady locations? See this article on the Best Perennials for Shade