Mertensia virginica (mer-TEN-see-uh vir-JIN-ih-kuh) is a wildflower that grows freely in the flood plains and rich woodlands of eastern North America. It’s a native plant found growing in areas ranging from Alabama, Kansas, Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, and New York state, and into Quebec and Ontario, Canada.
This herbaceous perennial plant is a member of the Boraginaceae (borage) family of plants.
The plant’s botanical name honors Bremen professor of botany Franz Carl Mertens, who lived and practiced around the turn of the nineteenth century and referred to the plant’s origins in Virginia.
Common names for this plant include:
- Virginia Bluebells
- Eastern Bluebells
- Virginia Cowslip
- Oyster Leaf
Virginia Bluebells Care
Size and Growth
This perennial wildflower has an erect growth habit. Individual plants grow to be one or two feet tall with a spread of about 1 ½’ feet.
They die back all the way to the ground in autumn but return enthusiastically in the spring.
Flowering and Fragrance
Virginia Bluebells produce large, pendulous terminals of purplish-pink clusters of flowers early in spring atop arched stems. When the flower buds open, the trumpet-shaped flowers start out slightly pink but then transition into a deep shade of sky blue.
The bloom time of these ephemeral blue flowers lasts a couple of months (typically March through April). The sweetly fragrant blooms attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other long-tongued pollinators.
The plants typically finish blooming before deciduous trees leaf out. The spent blooms become seed capsules, and the leaves die back rapidly.
Before summer arrives, the entire plant will have disappeared, but fear not! It will return with vigor next spring.
When Oyster Leaf’s leaves emerge early in the spring, they are bluish or grayish-green. The deeply veined alternate leaves are oval and smooth and may grow to a length of about 4”to 8” inches.
The plant’s upper leaves appear sessile and directly attached to the stem. In contrast, the lower leaves have a petiole ad extends down the stem.
The plant’s hollow stems are nearly succulent and quite fragile. They break very easily when disturbed, so it’s a good idea to protect these purplish-green growths as soon as you spot them in the springtime.
Light and Temperature
Virginia Cowslip does well planted under deciduous trees. The plants will enjoy the early spring sun before the trees grow leaves. They will die back and rest in the shade of summer.
These plants prefer morning sun to afternoon sun and need partial to full shade through the summertime.
Lungwort is winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8.
Watering and Feeding
Eastern Bluebells thrive naturally in moist woodlands and floodplains, so it is important to provide plenty of water to maintain evenly moist soil throughout the early spring months when the plant is growing and blooming.
Do not allow your Virginia Bluebells to dry out during the summertime when they are dormant. You can reduce watering, but understand that these plants are not drought-tolerant.
These wildflowers don’t need much in the way of fertilizer. Keeping your soil well-amended with the organic matter should be enough to keep them happy.
If your soil is very poor, you may wish to work on some organic fertilizer when you start your plants. Top-dress with an organic fertilizer in the springtime when you begin to see new growth.
Soil Types and Transplanting
Moist, light soil that is rich in organic matter is best. However, it also grows well in moist, rich soil. If you’re current soil is poor, you can amend it with compost.
You can transplant Virginia Cowslip (seedlings or rhizomes) in springtime or in the autumn. Be sure to provide moist soil or rich, well-draining soil, and choose a location that offers partial or full shade.
Moreover, always check the soil moisture and provide leaf mulch to retain it in the following year.
If planting in autumn, do so well before the first frost. In springtime, wait until all danger of frost has passed.
Seedlings should be placed about a foot apart. Moreover, dormant rhizomes should be buried about one inch deep and paced about a foot apart.
Once established, these hardy wildflowers develop a very long taproot. Disturbing them during the growing season can be damaging, so wait until plants have completed their bloom time and gone completely dormant in the early fall to move and divide mature plants.
Grooming and Maintenance
Lungwort reseeds itself enthusiastically and will spread with wild abandon. If you want to control this, deadhead the flowers to prevent them from going to seed.
Otherwise, you don’t need to do much. The plants don’t need staking, and their foliage will completely disappear into the ground when the brief growing season ends.
If you want to speed up the disappearance of the plants, you can cut or mow them when the foliage has become completely yellow or brown.
Once the foliage is out of the way, you should put up some sort of marker to remember where the plants were in the coming growing season. This will help you avoid accidentally trampling them or mowing over them early in the springtime.
How To Propagate Virginia Bluebells
In addition to the division, It is also possible to propagate these plants by sowing seed directly into prepared garden soil in the autumn or 6-8 weeks before the last predicted frost in the springtime. These seeds require stratification by cool, damp weather to grow.
You can gather them (perhaps from a woodland area) in the springtime and sow them in your desired location immediately. When you do this, they will naturally be exposed to the cold, damp weather they need to spur germination.
Alternatively, you can gather seed in spring, place it in an airtight container and store it in your refrigerator until you are ready to either start the seed indoors or sow it outdoors.
Remember that the seeds need one or two months of cold, damp stratification before sowing outside. You can winter sow as early as January.
Whether sowing the seed indoors or outdoors, they should be scattered lightly over the surface of the soil and then just dusted with a fine layer of soil to hold them in place.
Seeds will germinate when the temperature reaches 70° degrees Fahrenheit.
Starting Virginia BlueBells, Mertensia virginica, from Seed
Because these plants grow so easily from seed and self-sow quite readily, growing them by division or from seedlings really doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.
If your plants do become overcrowded, you may wish to thin and divide them in the autumn. Dig them up and separate the rhizomes using a sharp, sterilized cutting implement to do.
Be sure that each division includes a rhizome with a node for viability.
Leave the divided rhizomes in a sheltered, airy location for a few days to dry out. Plant them before the first frost.
As mentioned, you can start seedlings indoors early in the springtime and then plant them out, but this is the least satisfactory method of growing Virginia Bluebells. If you do this, it will be several years before you see any flowers.
The bottom line is these wildflowers grow and propagate best and most successfully when left to their own devices. Provide them with a habitat replicating their wild settings, and they will do the rest.
Virginia Bluebells Main Pest Or Diseases
Eastern Bluebells are fairly impervious to pests and diseases as long as they have a conducive setting. They also resist rabbits and deer, and they can be grown at the feet of black walnut trees.
However, these native wildflowers can be susceptible to root rot, especially in very wet conditions.
Moreover, they cannot be grown under or around invasive shrubs and trees like Amur Honeysuckle and Bradford Pear. These plants leaf out very early and prevent Virginia Bluebells from getting enough light to bloom and produce seeds.
Is the plant considered toxic or poisonous to people, kids, and pets?
Native Americans used Virginia Bluebells as a food source and for medicinal purposes; however, one must know exactly how to prepare the plant.
Mertensia virginica contains Pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These are toxic when consumed and will cause lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Severe poisoning is not common. Even so, keeping curious kids, pets, and livestock out of your Virginia bluebell patch is best.
Is the plant considered invasive?
Within its native range, Virginia Cowslip is actually considered threatened due to the destruction of its habitat.
Outside of its native range, given ideal growing conditions, it can be considered aggressive because of its enthusiastic growth and reseeding habits. The plant is not officially considered invasive.
Suggested Virginia Bluebells Uses
Place Virginia Bluebells in shady woodlands, a nature scape, or a wildflower garden. Simply leave it alone if you want to be rewarded with a beautiful sight.
This spring ephemeral flower will grow and spread happily, providing a splash of colorful blooms in your garden.
They also are stunning when grown around shrubs and trees or in mass plantings.
Individual plants can also be used in rock gardens, native plant gardens, or borders. However, it is especially important to mark their location in these settings so as not to forget them in the springtime .
Moreover, these native wildflowers make a pretty addition to a spring bulb garden or a perennial garden, but the flowers are not good candidates as cut flowers.
Grown under lilacs, with a drift of daffodils and low scillas or Muscari comosum monstrosum in front, bluebells plants are breathtaking. Among ferns, north of a house, providing the soil is right, they are also lovely, but the most charming combination of all is with the pure white flowers of Trillium grandiflorum species.
Bluebells mix well with perennial woodland plants such as Hostas, Celandine Poppy, Bleeding Heart, Trillium, Astilbe, Solomon’s Seal, and ferns. They look very pretty and do well in clumps in a woodland garden.