Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Virginia Bluebells

Mertensia virginica is in gorgeous bloom in natural areas all around middle Tennessee.**

It's hard to believe, but, this is one wildflower not in my garden. Once upon a time there was a small, but, lovely stand that made me smile every spring. A dozen years ago we reworked the front garden path. We made it wider, built a small wall and had the workers place a beautiful boulder a few feet from the new path. It wasn't until the following spring, when I couldn't find any blooming Virginia bluebells that I realized that the boulder was sitting on top of them.

Look at that blue and pink! I know you'll agree with me, that's it's long past time to bring these beauties back to Clay and Limestone.

In the meantime, here's our March Wildflower Wednesday star.

I adore their water-colored beauty. The pink buds transition to shades of blue, with touches of lavender as they open. The nodding bells are perfectly complimented by the gray green leaves and stems (technically pendulate spiral-shaped cymes).

source: Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man)
Mertensia virginica is a member of the Boraginaceae (Borage) family. Wildflowers in this family are most often blue, mauve, pink or purple, and many of them change from reddish to blue as the flowers age. The leaves of most species in this family are hairy, and some of them can cause uncomfortable skin irritation if they are handled repeatedly. Although, Virginia bluebells share the color changing flower characteristic with other Borage family members, their leaves, stems and flowers are not hairy. The genus name Mertensia is in honor of the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens (1764-1831).
Creekside at Taylor Hollow

They thrive in moist, woodland soil, damp river bottomlands and clearings in shaded forests. They're native to most of eastern North America.

A long-lived perennial, Virginia bluebells expands slowly to form beautiful clumps that return year after year. They're ephemerals and emerge early each spring, taking advantage of the rich, moist soil and full sunlight streaming through the bare branches of the deciduous trees. In the short period of time before the tree canopy emerges and blocks the sunlight, they must grow, leaf-out, flower, be pollinated, produce seeds and die back (retreat underground).

Amazing isn't it?
 Columbine, anemones, violets and other shade loving natives grow well alongside Virginia bluebells
They will become dormant by midsummer, so use other plants to hide any gaps left behind. Native Christmas ferns, wild ginger, and fall blooming woodland ex-asters make lovely companions. They will also help you identify exactly where the dormant plants are so you don't drop a boulder on them like I did!

Virginia Native Plant Society
Adding Virginia bluebells to your garden is a great way to provide nectar to local pollinators in the early spring. Bumblebees are often seen visiting flowers, and according to the New York Botanical Garden: "our native queen bumblebee serves as the principal pollinator of Virginia bluebells. Because the nectar is at the base of the long, bell-like flowers, bees that do not have a proboscis (tongue) long enough to reach it may take a shortcut and slit the corolla closer to the nectar source to pilfer the nectar. In short, some bees are nectar robbers of Virginia bluebells, which makes them ineffective as pollinators. The flowers are funnel shaped and pollinators must hover making the bumblebee a rare pollinator. It makes more sense that butterflies would be the more common pollinator; they can grasp the edges of the flower petals as they explore (and pollinate) individual flowers.

Dear readers, have you seen pollinators on your Virginia bluebells?

The Particulars

Mertensia virginica
Virginia Bluebells
Borage family (Boraginaceae)
Type: Perennial, spring ephemeral
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7
Range: Eastern US and Canada; NY & s. Ont. to e. MN, s. to NC, AR & e. KS; naturalized northeastward

Spring ephemeral: emerges in late winter, yellows and disappears by June/July

Blooms: March through April
Habitat: moist bottomlands, clearings in moist woodlands
Flower:Terminal clusters of pendulous, trumpet-shaped pink, blue flowers


Size: They grow 18 inches tall and spread
Soil: moist, well drained soil, that's slightly acidic to neutral
Water: moist soil essential
Wildlife value: Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated by long-tongued bees primarily, including honeybees, bumblebees, Anthophorid bees (Anthophora spp., Synhalonia spp.), and mason bees (Osmia spp.); these insects obtain nectar and/or collect pollen. Other visitors of the flowers include the Giant Bee Fly (Bombylius major), butterflies, skippers, and Sphinx moths, including a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). This group of visitors suck nectar from the flowers. Halictid bees and Syrphid flies sometimes visit the flowers, but they are too small in size to be effective pollinators. In some areas, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has been observed to visit the flowers. White-Tailed Deer browse on the foliage occasionally during the spring. When this plant forms large colonies, it provides protective cover for many kinds of wildlife during the spring

Thank you for stopping by Clay and Limestone to see our March Wildflower Wednesday star. Virginia bluebells may be the most popular of all spring flowers and can be found in many gardens. It's easy to grow, providing you give it well drained, moist soil and there my friends is the rub for many of us.

I wish you all a peace filled spring and may your gardens bring you happiness and a respite from all that's happening.


** Most of these photos were taken at Taylor Hollow or at Edwin Warner Park on hikes and strolls and I hope they showcase this beautiful wildflower.

Wildflower Wednesday is about sharing wildflowers from your part of the world. Don't worry if you have nothing in bloom, you can still showcase one of your favorites. You don't have to write anything, just share your wildflowers. The native plants I've chosen are adapted to the environment and conditions at Clay and Limestone and provide food, nesting and/or shelter for mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Humans seem to appreciate it, too.  It doesn't matter if we sometimes show the same plants; how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. I hope you join the celebration...It's always the fourth Wednesday of the month!

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. lovely, I need to take a drive on a forest service road to see what is blooming here in NE GA

  2. I had some in my Alabama garden. I miss it!

    1. I bet you could grow it where you are now.

  3. Aren't they the most spectacular color! Just seeing these photos make my heart sing...Spring!

  4. They sure are. I need this blue in my garden. xo

  5. Love pink and blue changeant flowers. Our Lobostemon does that (but none in my garden)

  6. Surprisingly, even though I do not have the proper habitat, I do have several small stands of Virginia Bluebells. My garden club visited a private property, more than ten years ago, and the owners allowed us to dig up some plants from the many thousands they had growing along a creek bed. Also not surprising, the road adjacent to this property was named Mertensia Road. I've moved and divided my plants from where I originally planted them and they are doing well, slowly expanding, again even though the habitat is not ideal. I'll have to check to see if the leaves are poking through yet on my next walkabout. I am in western NY and currently in lock down from the virus.

  7. I do love Virginia Bluebells. We have some in the garden, but less than there used to be. I put this down to rabbits, who decided that Virginia Bluebells were delicious after leaving it on their plate untouched for many years.

  8. I saw bluebells and got quite a surprise as you're showing quite a different plant to the English bluebells which are just about to flower here in the UK. I know I'm a little late for Wildflower Wednesday, but I had to tell you about the discovery I made on the actual wildflower day. Early one month, then late the next... fingers crossed I'm on time next time. Hope you are well in the current crisis and keep safe xxx

  9. I have some blue (and pink) flowers for you

  10. I live in Virginia and have a goodly amount of shade, but no bluebells. I was wondering about pollinators when I started reading, but you answered my questions before the end.

  11. I think I need to plant some of these - I need something that blooms in the back shade at this time of year. I live in Virginia with shade, but am Virginia Bluebell-less.

  12. I didn't know Virginia bluebells could bloom here in Massachusetts! Now I am going to have to figure out if I have a place for them. A large part of my garden is wet, even after bringing in yards and yards of compo-soil. But I will work on it.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson