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 cowslip, lungwort oysterleaf, Roanoke 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.
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.
Diseases 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 within 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
There 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 pollinators. 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.
When 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 the 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
“Grow Your Blog” Party
Please join me in my Grow Your Blog post. I have linked in with almost 400 bloggers around the world and from a variety of different types of blogs.
As part of the blog post I have a giveaway going on until January 31st. Winners to be announced February 1st. I am giving away 10 garden books. It is be open to all readers who leave a comment.
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.
I will be linking in with Michelle@Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme. It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every Wednesday.
As always, I’ll be joining Tootsie Time’s Fertilizer Friday.
I hope you will join me for my posts once a month at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. See my current post now.
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