Virginia Bluebells to Ring In the Spring

By Sharon V. Smith, former Fairfax Master Gardener Intern
Virginia BluebellsSo many of us look forward to spring. We get excited when we start to see our crocuses and daffodils break through the soil, reminding us that this is just the beginning of something special. As the weather warms, we are eager to go outside to see what else could be in bloom.

For those of us in love with our native wildflowers, seeing the spring ephemerals put on their brief, yet charming display of beauty is simply magical. The ephemerals’ glory is short-lived. Their brief stay makes it even more special to see them in a moist field along a path in the woods. It is hard to look away. We hope to remember them, and we try with our cameras to capture the wonder. Yet the picture is never the same as seeing them in person.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are one example of these masters of perfect timing. By definition, spring ephemerals bloom, set seed, and die back before the trees overhead block the sunlight with their leaves.  They have a small window of sunshine between snowmelt and leaf-out in which to grow, flower, be pollinated, and produce seeds. By June, the plants have utterly disappeared!

Technically, Virginia bluebells are not shade lovers, even though we find them as understory plants. They have developed a very efficient method of photosynthesis that helps accelerate growth before the leaves on the trees fully mature.

Lucky for us, Virginia bluebells are not prone to disease or pests and are rabbit resistant. Unfortunately, they are not deer resistant. Their blossoms last 10 to 14 days. They start off as beautiful pink buds, which open into bell-shaped flowers in shades of sky-blue to purple, on stems 18 to 24 inches tall. The leaves are bright green and oval. Bluebells self-sow into large patches when conditions are right. They prefer fertile, moist and neutral to slightly acidic soil.

The most reliable way to fill an area with bluebells is to plant a lot of seeds in late fall, just below the surface in moist soil. Not all seeds will germinate, yet a good number should sprout the following spring, with the flowers coming a year later.