Blue flowers are much desired in the garden, especially those that are true blue rather than purplish. One such beauty is Virginia bluebells, whose lovely sky blue flowers add a celestial note to woodland perennial gardens or shady wildflower plantings.
Early in the spring, this clump-forming perennial sends out large, light green leaves and upright flower stalks. Clusters of dangling, bell-shaped flowers develop at the tips of the flower stalks, changing from pink in bud to sky blue when fully open. Like other spring ephemerals, Virginia bluebells fades away within weeks after blooming, lying dormant until the following spring.
Common name: Virginia bluebells
Botanical name: Mertensia pulmonarioides (also known as M. virginica)
Plant type: Herbaceous perennial/spring ephemeral wildflower
Zones: 3 to 7
Height: 1 to 2 feet
Family: Boraginaceae, borage family
- Sun: Part or dappled shade
- Soil: Prefers humus-rich, moist soil. In clay or sandy soils, incorporate plenty of organic matter before planting.
- Moisture: Keep watered during active growth in the spring.
- Mulch: Apply 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch such as shredded leaves or compost.
- Pruning: None
- Fertilizer: Top dress with compost each spring.
- Seeds require 6 to 8 weeks of cold, moist stratification. Sow seeds outdoors in fall, or start seeds indoors in spring after storing in moist peat in the refrigerator.
- Divide large clumps in early spring or early summer.
- Take root cuttings in fall (or early winter in milder areas) to pot and grow indoors.
Pests and diseases
- Slugs and snails may nibble new growth.
- The lovely blue color of Virginia bluebells combines beautifully with other early-blooming woodland perennials such as trillium, columbine, and foamflower (Tiarella). It also mixes beautifully with yellow and white daffodils, which bloom at the same time.
- Since Virginia bluebells disappear from view by early to midsummer, fill the area in summer with shade-loving annuals or a low-growing ground cover like European ginger.
- Place a small marker at the base of Virginia bluebells before they fade so you don't accidentally injure them by digging in that area later in the year.
- ‘Alba': White flowers
- All in the family
- The borage family is notable for plants that sport true blue flowers, including borage, forget-me-nots, Brunnera, and Pulmonaria.
- The North Asian species Mertensia sibirica (zone 3 to 7) is another good garden choice. It bears deep blue flowers from late spring to midsummer.
(Text by Nancy Rose, photo by Amy Sumner)