Any yard or patio with a bit of shade is a potential home for Native Bluebells. Mertensia virginica is a perennial gardener’s dream plant. They are cold hardy from zones 3 to 8 with pink-turning-blue flowers for two months, avoided by rabbits and deer, require zero care, and spread slowly to form colonies.
The oval leaves come up early spring, followed by the tiny pink flower buds and then the multiple clusters of 1-inch long, bell-shaped, blue flowers.
Virginia Bluebells are ephemeral, meaning that after they flower and the leaves gather nutrients for next year, they disappear completely. Every year, I intend to divide our 10-year-old clump, but spring is so busy that they are gone before good intentions become an action item.
Many gardeners over-plant their Native Bluebells with Hostas or Ferns but ours are just mulched, leaving their planting area empty the rest of the year. They mature at 2 feet tall, and each plant is about 9 inches wide. They are happiest in part-shade, dappled shade or full-shade.
When the flowers fade, they are replaced by 4-lobed fruits (schizocarps), with four, flat, brown nutlets or seeds per flower. Bluebells appear in native habitats such as floodplain woodlands, bottomland woodlands, along rivers and stream banks.
Virginia Bluebells’ 45 cousins include Borage, Forget-Me-Not, Lungwort and Comfrey. Butterflies, skippers, bees (bumble, mason, honey, long-tongued) and moths (sphinx, hummingbird) all enjoy their pollen.
In Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary, he noted, “the bluish colored, funnel-formed flower in low grounds in bloom.” At that time, 1766, they were also called Mountain or Virginia Cowslip and Roanoke Bells. The roots were sold to British gardeners as early as 1730. The Cherokees used Bluebells to treat whooping cough and tuberculosis; the Iroquois used the roots in an antidote for poisoning.
The genus or plant family Mertensia was named for Franz Carl Mertens who was a Botany professor and there is a Texas town named for him.
Molly Day has been gardening for 40 years and garden writing for 15 years. You can search 2,000 entries in her blog at www.allthedirtongardening.blogspot.com.