Wildflower Tales-Virginia Bluebell


Let us decide on the route that we wish to take to pass our life, and attempt to sow that route with flowers. ~”Madame du Chatelet

I enjoyed writing my Simply The Best series last year as I joined in with Diana@Elephants Eye.  The best part of my research was finding all the folklore about wildflowers and native plants that grow here in my area of New York State.   This year, I plan to continue the Simply The Best series with an emphasis on herbs.  Occasionally I still want to highlight a wildflower and its tales so I decided to start this new series called Wildflower Tales.

As  humans we have a long history and tradition of story telling.  Sharing stories that were told and retold through the generations through word of mouth.  With the advent of the written word and books, many stories have been preserved allowing us to share them still.  I hope through both series, I will be writing this year, that I can share many of these stories as I highlight some amazing wildflowers we can grow as we keep their stories going.

I am joining Gail@Clay and Limestone for her monthly Wildflower Wednesday meme as I highlight a special and much loved wildflower, Virginia bluebells or Mertensia virginica.   This flower is also known by the names,  Virginia cowsliplungwort oysterleafRoanoke bells.

This ephemeral beauty is one of the harbingers to spring and one stunning flower I look forward to.  The leaves emerge as deep purple with flower buds nestled within.  As they grow, nodding clusters of pink buds emerge from the leaves and stand at the top of 1-2 foot tall stems. This habit of flowers unfurling from the leaves is typical of the Borage Family (Boraginaceae) to which Virginia bluebells belong.

The leaves turn to a gray-green as the plant matures and the flowers open more.  One of the most beautiful aspects of this flower is watching the flower buds change from pink to blue like the lungwort.  They return to pink once they have been pollinated.  An added bonus is the delicate scent of the flowers.

Other wildflowers that can be found growing with Virginia bluebells include, Dutchman’s-breeches, toothwort, rue-anemone, trout-lily, wild ginger, and violets. Native trees and bushes such as Redbud, serviceberry, and dogwood also bloom with bluebells.



Growing Conditions

Virginia bluebells are hardy from zone 3 to 9, and flower from March to June depending on your zone.  They prefer part shade to shade growing best in acidic, moist to wet, humus-rich woodland-type soil.  If you can recreate a woodland setting or have a woodland setting that is moist in spring, then this plant is a must to grow.  In fact to see these beauties in the wild you will probably have to trek through muddy woodlands well off the beaten path.

flower buds up closeDiseases and pests do not bother this bluebell, but hot sun or dry, sandy, alkaline soil will most assuredly cause them to wither or not grow at all.  It is important that when they are growing and blooming that they get enough water so plant them in a wet shady area or mulch them to keep their roots cool.  Since they are a native, it is important to plant them in the right conditions so they should not need water.

If left undisturbed, this species will thrive and form large colonies through an extensive rhizome network.  As the days lengthen in spring the flowers bloom, and by early summer as the tree canopy leafs out they have completely disappeared.  The foliage dies back by mid-summer, and the plant will stay dormant until the following spring.

In early summer as the plant goes dormant, each fertilized flower produces four seeds flower buds still nestled in leaveswithin what look like wrinkled nuts. Seeds can be collected in late May, early June or 3-4 weeks after blooming.  For best results, seeds should be sown immediately after collection.  They can be stored, once dried, in a sealed container in the refrigerator and planted six weeks prior to the last frost date. If you store the seeds over winter and want to plant them in spring, they must be cold-moist stratified for six weeks.

Rhizomes can be divided once the plant is dormant right after they are done blooming.  Just expose the plant’s roots and take a cutting.  Since Virginia bluebells reseed freely, you can dig up volunteer seedlings to transplant.  Virginia bluebells do not like to be disturbed so seedlings are a better option than cuttings from the roots.



Where They Are Found

VA bluebells and lungwortThere are at least 18 species of native bluebells in North America.  Virginia bluebells can be found growing in open woods and river bottoms from New York to South Carolina and west to Minnesota, Kansas, and Alabama where it is a native.  Grown in masses it is beautiful and resembles the bluebells growing in large groups in the UK.

Other bluebell species found in North America are the rosy-pink-flowered species, Sea Lungwort (M. maritima), which grows on beaches from Newfoundland to Massachusetts. Tall Lungwort  (M. paniculata) sports a hairy stem, and can be found in the middle US from parts of Wisconsin, and into northeastern Iowa and Minnesota.

Interestingly Virginia bluebells are at risk in Ontario.  This is not a surprise for any wildflower that is endangered as habitats are taken for development, and people keep digging them up.  This is why it is important never to collect any wildflower from the wild.



Benefits to Wildlife

The flowers of Virginia bluebells are visited by many pollinators.  But due to the funnel shaped flowers the long-tongued bees are the primary pink pollinated flowerspollinators.  Butterflies are another pollinator because they can easily perch on the edges of the flower.  Pollinators love the nectar of the blue flowers and collect their pollen.

Others visit as well: honeybees, bumblebees, Anthophorid bees, Mason bees, large Leaf-Cutting bees and Miner bees.  But these are rare pollinators due to the flower shape. Hummingbirds, bee flies, skippers, and Sphinx moths and hummingbird moths are said to visit Virginia bluebells for the nectar although I have not noticed these visitors partaking of my Virginia bluebells.



Folklore and Tales

The genus of Mertensia virginica is named for the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens (1764-1831).  Linnaeus named the genus Mertensia and the specific name, virginica, which refers to the Colony of Virginia where it was discovered.

VA bluebells in bloomWhen Pioneers arrived to the New World  and saw Virginia bluebells, they thought them similar in appearance to their native lungwort.  They tried to use Virginia bluebells as a replacement to lungwort in the New World to treat ailments of the lungs with no success.

Some of the alternate names for Virginia bluebells, like lungwort came from this use of  treating pulmonary disorders.  The name oysterleaf they say came from the oyster-like flavor of its leaves.  I have never tried oysters or Virginia bluebells leaves and I don’t think I will.  Blech!

In correspondence from Williamsburg, VA, John Custis referred to the Virginia bluebell as the “Mountain blew cowslip.”  Thomas Jefferson also grew them at Monticello, which is why 19th-century garden writers sometimes called them “Jefferson’s blue funnel flowers.”

English naturalist, Alfred Wallace saw Virginia bluebells for the first time near Cincinnati OH and wrote of them, “In a damp river bottom theflower buds extending exquisite blue Mertensia virginica was found.  It is called here the ‘Virginian cowslip’, its drooping porcelain-blue bells being somewhat of the size and form of those of the true cowslip.”

While there are not many medicinal uses for Virginia bluebells, some Native American tribes did have a few medicinal uses for this plant. The Cherokee Tribe used this plant to treat whooping cough, tuberculosis, and other respiratory ailments. The Iroquois used the roots of this plant to treat venereal diseases.

I could not find any meaning in the Language of Flowers for the Virginia bluebells, but English Bluebells have long been symbolic of humility, gratitude and everlasting love. These English Bluebells are also closely linked to fairies, and are sometimes referred to as “fairy thimbles.”  The story is that to call fairies the bluebells would be rung.


What flower tales do you have?




Carrying the weight on the end of a limb
You’re just waiting for somebody to pick you up again
Shaded by a tree, can’t live up to a rose
All you ever wanted was a sunny place to grow

Pretty little thing, sometimes you gotta look up
And let the world see all the beauty that you’re made of
‘Cause the way you hang your head nobody can tell
You’re my Virginia Bluebell
My Virginia Bluebell

song by-Miranda Lambert

**Run your cursor over the pictures to see a description


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Next up on the blog:  Next Monday will start another year in the series Simply the Best focusing on herbs.  As February dawns, it will be time for another garden journal post.  Spring is getting closer and closer.

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As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’s Fertilizer Friday.

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All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Gardens Eye View, 2010-2012.  Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.

79 Replies to “Wildflower Tales-Virginia Bluebell”

    1. I think the early settlers here from the UK saw them and were reminded of their own bluebells…it was a great honor to call the new flowers they saw bluebells given the beauty and rich history of the UK bluebell…glad you enjoyed our native bluebells!

  1. Thanks for this informative article. I have grown Virginia bluebells in my sandy, dryish shade garden, but they do tend to dwindle because conditions aren’t ideal, as you suggest. That doesn’t stop me from planting more, because they’re so delightful in spring.

    1. I agree Helen…I would find a way to plant them if I did not have ideal conditions. I plan to take some volunteers and seeds and spread the love around other wet shady areas in my garden this year!!

  2. Donna, an excellent article and photos. I can’t say I’ve ever seen bluebells growing in the wild, not like the trilliums anyway that are abundant in our area.
    The ones in my garden are from a friend , friendship plants are always nice to have and especially if they are native.

    1. Judith I have not seen them growing in the wild either but would love to find a stand someday…I agree any plant given to us by a friend is indeed special in our gardens and 10 fold if a native!!!

  3. Donna, I love Virginia bluebells. My first attempts to grow them were unsuccessful, but after I created a humusy environment in part shade, they did well. Thanks for a beautiful and informative post.

  4. I enjoyed reading about mertensia virginica – one of my favourite wildflowers. I got my first little patch from a fellow gardener and delight in their blossoms every spring. One of the reasons we’re losing them here in Ontario is because their habitat is being overtaken by garlic mustard. Many groups organize garlic mustard pulls in order to help them re-establish.

    1. Barbara that is great to hear that folks are working to help the VA bluebells…that are too cute to not have in the native garden.

  5. Hi Donna. We have managed to keep three Virginia Bluebells plants alive for a number of years now (15!) by moving them around when they looked unwell. They are now in the ‘nursery bed’ gaining some strength for a new location in the spring. They are such a beautiful plant as can be seen in your photos.
    Very informative. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Jim. You obviously love these flowers to give them such care. I am with you. I will do anything to keep mine alive and blooming.

  6. A lovely flower that I have only seen once in an English garden, but will keep my eyes open as I have just the spot for it…. Thanks for such a lovely and informative post, Donna! A great idea for a series, and I look forward to more!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Cathy…there will be another post in the series in mid February. I hope you can find some for your garden.

  7. Donna, I love those blue flowers! I’ve never heard of martensia before, and I am absolutely enthusiastic about it! The pictures you posted are amazing and the information very interesting to read.
    Beautiful post!

  8. Thanks for this informative post!I learned that bluebells are native to Alabama! So now I must add them to my garden. The flowers are so beautiful, and I like that they will be dormant when the hot summer hits.

  9. Donna, very beautiful, not only because i have bias for the blue! I guess domestic ornamental plants have all been wildflowers or weeds in the past, taken care of in houses and given more value, so they elevated their status in the hierarchy of utility. No matter where they are, i love the blues! haha.

  10. I have been growing these beauties for years, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so much. I found the folklore information really interesting and the words by Miranda Lambert.

  11. Good to know that you have a native bluebell. Every garden needs bluebells in spring. Odd that it was mistaken for lungwort as the leaves are quite different.

    1. I agree we all need bluebells…I thought the same thing about the lungwort leaves but the flowers are a bit similar and I have them growing near each other.

  12. There are fields and fields of these where I live in VA. Trips to see the bluebells are annual events. Such a beautiful spring flower. For me, their blooms signal that spring has really started.

  13. This was a wonderful post….very informative. The pictures are lovely. I think I’m going to try growing the Bluebells in my zone 7 cottage garden. They would be a great addition!

    1. My weeds are buried and will be growing fast even under the snow…many weeds are wildflowers but i only get rid of the invasive non-native weeds…

  14. What a lovely post and about a plant I knew nothing about.. Hmmm…wet and shady..like in our wetland woods that is only really wet in the springtime?…Michelle

  15. Hi Donna, I have never grown Bluebells either. They’re so pretty and dainty. I’ve grown Borage and I have several clumps of Lungworts though. This is a great post because I’m craving flowers right now. Thank you!

    Have a great weekend.

    1. I am with you about craving flowers, but I am also enjoying some respite from the garden. It will wear off soon though.

  16. Such a lovely post about one of my fave wildflowers. I have 3 clumps of Mertensia and love it. You shared a lot of interesting information in your post, and your photos are great too. There is a local place called Merrimac Farms that is absolutely packed with the bluebells in the spring…it’s a woodsy area and so beautiful. Our local native plant society has tours that the public can take there. I hope to get out there this spring.

    1. How wonderful Jan. I hope to visit my sister in VA in the near future and perhaps I can coordinate it with the blooming of the bluebells.

    1. It can be fussy when trying to grow it especially from seed…if you can find little seedlings it is worth trying again.

  17. Donna, I am so glad you wrote about Virginia Bluebells!! I got a gift coupon from my daughter to Brent and Becky’s, saw that they had Virginia Bluebells and have been debating about how many to get. I wanted to get some for my garden for a long time, though it is not one you see in the garden shops around here.
    Will be ordering a couple for my garden!! What a pretty bloom.

    1. Janet you will love these flowers. They do take a few years to grow in but even the new little plants with the pretty blue flowers are worth seeing. Once they grow in and mature they are stunning!!

    1. I bet they would grow. They sometimes take a while to grow in as many ephemeral natives do but they are worth the wait. Plant them in spring and they may grow some leaves but should come the next spring. There are specific species that may be better to your area…you can check them out at http://www.wildflower.org/plants/
      and type in mertensia hit go and check them out.

  18. I never paid much attention to the latin names of plants until I became interested in native plants. I will look for the native bluebell variety for SE Michigan for these are lovely flowers.

    1. Wonderful Mary. Mertensia virginica is native to Michigan as is Mertensia paniculata the Tall bluebells. Not sure which is native to your particular area but can’t wait to hear what you might find out!!

  19. interesting post Donna, I can see why settlers wanting a reminder of Europe would think of them as bluebells but they are very different to our bluebells which are a member of the hyacinth family, I think virginia cowslip suits these better, I have seen them on many peoples blog posts in springtime, they are beautiful, I often wonder if these plants had names before the Europeans arrived as they now all seem to be named by the invaders, I appreciate your including info you find from the original people, Frances

    1. So right Frances as the only thing in common is a bell shaped flower that is blue. I have wondered the same thing about the original names from the native people’s. Glad you enjoyed the tale!

  20. Hi Donna, I think I am going to enjoy this series, it will introduce me to so many new plants with interesting stories. I like your native bluebell, though it is very different from our own – and the Spanish interlopers that are pushing their way up in my new garden.

    1. Janet I adore your English bluebells but they do not like my garden. The Spanish ones grow anywhere here but have not taken over. I am glad you enjoy our native bluebells and also happy you are enjoying the series. I will also have a series on herbs starting Monday.

  21. I really enjoyed reading about the Virginia bluebell. I love the way you present your posts on plants. Love that quote at the start 🙂

    1. Oh Alicia aren’t you just too kind. I am glad that readers enjoy the posts. I really have fun finding all the quotes and interesting facts about my wildflowers.

  22. Oh how I love blue in the garden! gorgeous!
    Thank you for linking in this week again..I am always so happy to see my friends letting their gardens and hard work shine!
    I hope you will link in again soon!
    Your post today has been shared on the Tootsie Time Facebook page.

    hugs from Alberta Canada!
    ¸.•´¸.•*¨) ¸.•*¨)
    (¸.•´ (¸.•´ .•´ ¸¸.•¨¯`•.

    1. Kathy do you have a place where you can get some? I am unsure if I will have volunteers this year, and I am hoping to collect some seeds so I might be able to help.

  23. I love Virginia bluebells, I always have to remember to plant something around it that will come up later after the VB goes dormant. I have seen hummingbird moths visiting the flowers, but that’s it for pollinators. Great post Donna.

    1. How nice to have the hummingbird moths visit Heather. I am trying to keep better track of who visits my natives. Glad you enjoyed the wildflower profile.

  24. I never added them to my garden because of their very aggressive garden behavior. You must have had good luck containing them.

  25. What lovely flowers! I love the colors. I have acidic soil, but I don’t know about moist. Love all the stories and names.

    1. They are amazing Leora. The key is moist soil and shade to part shade. So if you have that they will grow nicely.

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