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Wildflower Feature of the Month: Virginia Bluebells

We're starting something new in Yard and Garden News! Every few weeks during the summer we will feature a different wildflower. We're kicking off this new series with one of our favorite spring ephemerals!

Wildflower Feature for May

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, is so impressive as a wildflower that when my husband first saw them in the woods he said, ”Who planted these?” Showy but brief, these blue, then purple and finally pink flowers form in clusters at the ends of 2 foot tall stems with lush foliage. Flowers are tubular and pendulous on plants 12-30 inches in height.

Where to find them

Native in central and southern Minnesota, and most states east of the Mississippi, this hardy wildflower, is a nice addition to shady garden sites.  In the wild it is found in shady to semi shady sites in wooded areas or at the edge of woods.

A true spring ephemeral, Virginia bluebells grow very early in the spring, flower before most trees have leafed out, and then completely disappear by mid June. The plants are not dead, but simply go dormant very early; remembering where they are planted to not disturb the roots is important. 
Tip: Adding a special stake or label near the plants will help you remember their location.
Virginia bluebells Mertensia virginica
Wildflower Garden, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Photos: Gail Hudson, Extension Communications

Planting tips

Deer and rabbit resistant, Virginia bluebells can set seed and proliferate in your garden, if the site is right.  They tend to be found in native sites with good moisture, but can tolerate some drier conditions during the summer when the plants are dormant. 

Native garden centers sell Virginia bluebells, but you need to look for them very early, in April and May. Good companion plants are ferns, hosta, and native geraniums, which come up as the bluebells are going dormant. 

In Northern Minnesota, a similar species is native, Mertensia paniculata, which has shorter more bell shaped flowers, with plants lasting longer in June.

Here's a good website for wildflowers: 

Author: Mary H. Meyer, Extension Horticulturist and Professor
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