Virginia Bluebells Are Magic in the Shade Garden - Horticulture

Virginia Bluebells Are Magic in the Shade Garden

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Is it possible to fall in love with a plant? I think it is, because Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) have charmed me since the first time I saw them one late April morning as I was driving a country lane in Berks County, Pa. A flash of blue on the ground deep in someone’s woodlot intrigued me, so I pulled over and went to investigate. I thought it might be a thick stand of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), but the shade of blue was too light. Whatever it was had naturalized over at least an acre of moist bottomland under the dappled shade of those trees.

virginia bluebells

The flowering plants grew about a foot to a foot-and-a-half tall. Little packets of flower buds peeked out from between the eight-inch, purplish gray-green, oblong leaves that formed a basal rosette. In places where more sunlight hit the forest floor, the buds had become pink unopened flowers or had already matured to a powdery baby blue. Imagine the rich, sky blue of borage flowers softened with white powder. The scent of these little flowers was very much like the color—sweet, pretty and oh-so-dainty.

This little darling continued to pour on the charm. The flowers appeared in bunches, unrolling from elongating, gracefully arching stems. Each flower was about an inch long. The first two-thirds formed a long, narrow, funnel-shaped tube. For the final third, the flower opened a wide bell, like a hoop skirt with a fancy scalloped edge all the way around. Five lighter blue stamens emerged from the funnel, which concealed the pistil.

Back home, I identified the plants as mertensia and discovered that after pollination, the flowers shrink and revert to pink. As the spring progresses and the woodland canopy fills in to block the sunlight, mertensia melts away. It is gone by the June solstice, although underground rhizomes persist. Each flower makes a few small seeds, and these do most of the naturalizing as rains float them onto nearby fertile ground, expanding the patch. Every year thereafter that I still lived in Pennsylvania, I visited that spot and said hello to those harbingers of spring, who greeted me right back with the most feminine grace and charm.

When I relocated to Sonoma County, Calif., I found myself missing the vernal greeting. Perennial books said the plants will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 9, and I’m spang in the middle of Zone 9, so I ordered three bare-root plants from a nursery in Oregon. They made a nice show the first year, but seemed to be struggling in the second, and they were a no-show the third year and thereafter. I knew what the trouble was. I now live on a hillside with the dry, alkaline soils of California, while mertensia likes rich, wet, acidic, bottomland conditions. Those are easy to find from Canada to Alabama and from the Atlantic seaboard to the states on the west side of the Mississippi River. A word of caution if you grow them: while they like wet conditions in spring, their rhizomes will rot if summer conditions are boggy. So pick a spot that drains well in summer. For mertensia to be successful in the rollin’, golden hills of California, I’d have to reproduce their moist, humusy, bottomland homes—no easy trick where the warm Mediterranean climate, for all its horticultural advantages, burns through soil organic matter like a fat guy at a hot-dog-eating contest.

Virginia bluebells, which are members of the borage family, have several other common names. Early English colonists thought they looked a lot like English cowslips (Primulaveris), although their flowers are blue, not yellow, and they called them Virginia cowslip. John Custis, of Williamsburg, Va., writing to a friend in London in 1734 called them “Mountain Blew Cowslips.” Others thought they look a lot like the common lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) but without the spotted leaves and the violet-color flowers, and so called them lungwort. And in fact, Native Americans did use mertensia’s leaves as a remedy for lung problems, although modern research can’t find any medicinal value in them.

Linnaeus named the plant for Franz Mertens, a well-known (at the time) 18th-century botanist, and of course the species name refers to the state where the English colonists first encountered it. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello, and 19th-century garden writers sometimes referred to them as “Jefferson’s blue funnel flowers.”

Mertensia wasn’t the only plant growing in that Pennsylvania woodlot, although they were the most abundant and the stars of the show. Other wildings included spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), rue anemone (Thalictrumthalictroides), wild ginger (Asarumcanadense) and violets (Viola), among others.
In other words, welcome to an Appalachian spring!

Image credit: Marcia Straub/Moment/Getty Images