Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
One of the most spectacular sites in the spring is a woodland filled with the bright blue of Virginia bluebells. You can recreate this seasonal show in your shady or woodland garden.
What are Virginia Bluebells?
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are perennial wild flowers that are native to the woodlands of eastern North America. They are very cold hardy so their range stretches from Canada to Alabama (zones 3 – 8). They are a member of the borage family, related to forget-me-nots and lungwort.
Virginia bluebells grow in full to partial shade in moist, rich soil. They tend to grow in clumps because they readily spread by both seed and runners. The plants grow to a height of 1 ½ to 2 feet. The leaves are purple when they emerge in the spring, turning green as they mature.
The flower buds are pink as are the flowers as they begin to open. When fully open, the flowers are a bright blue. The flowers have 5 petals that are fused into a tube. They hang downwards from a stem, dangling like bells.
Bumblebees struggle to pollinate them because they cannot fit inside the flowers so they must hover to reach the nectar and pollen. Butterflies and moths are frequent visitors because they can perch on the edge of the flowers and reach down the tubes with their long tongues. Bloom time is April and May.
When the plants have finished blooming, the leaves gradually die back, turning yellow, as the plants go dormant by mid-summer.
How to Grow Virginia Bluebells
Virginia bluebells are easy to grow in your shady or woodland garden. You can prepare your garden by working some compost and organic fertilizer into the soil. After planting your bluebells, top dress with more compost.
They are usually sold as dormant rhizomes. The rhizomes should be planted very early in the spring, before your last frost when the soil has thawed and has become workable. Plant the rhizomes 1 inch deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. Plant them in groups or drifts as you would bulbs, rather than scattered singly throughout your garden.
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Once your rhizomes have germinated, keep the plants well-watered. They do not like to be dry. A thick layer of mulch will keep the soil cool and moist. Even though they will grow to two feet tall, the plants require no staking nor do they need to be pruned. The plants are also deer and rabbit resistant.
When the foliage dies in mid-summer, carefully trim it off. Leaving it in your garden will invite harmful insects to take up residence.
How to Divide Virginia Bluebells
Virginia bluebells do not like being disturbed, but if you would like to share some with a fellow gardener or you want to move a few to a new location, you can carefully divide them. Division should be done in the fall when the rhizomes are dormant. If you try to divide the rhizomes in the spring, they may not bloom that year. Using a garden fork, gently dig up the clump of rhizomes and brush the soil off. Pry the clump apart, making sure that each rhizome has a node or eye (like a potato) on it. This where the plant grows from. Do not re-plant for a few days to allow the rhizomes to dry out a little. This prevents disease from getting into the rhizomes when they are re-planted and are growing new roots. When you are ready to plant, plant your rhizomes 1 inch deep and 12 to 18 inches apart.
How to Grow Virginia Bluebells From Seed
Virginia bluebells grow readily from seed. You can direct sow the seed in your shady or woodland garden in the fall. Plant the seeds where you want the plants to grow. They do not like to be transplanted. Cover them with 1/8 inch of soil and keep watered. The seeds will germinate in the spring. You will have to wait 2 – 3 years for flowers. That’s how long it takes for the plants to grow their rhizomes. Once the rhizomes have formed, the plants will begin to bloom in the spring.
You can also start your seeds indoors 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost. They will need to be cold stratified to mimic the cold weather of winter. Plant your seeds 1/8 inch deep in a container filled with pre-moistened soil. Put the container in a plastic bag and place it in your refrigerator for 4 weeks. The plastic bag should keep the soil moist. Check it periodically and add a little water if the soil is dry. After 4 weeks, remove the container from your refrigerator. Take it out of the plastic bag and place it in a spot that gets indirect sunlight. Germination should occur in 1 – 2 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost. The plants will flower in 2 – 3 years, after they have grown their rhizome.
© 2020 Caren White
Caren White (author) on February 19, 2020:
Yes Rebecca, these would work. Don't forget that they go dormant during the summer so you will also need shade plants that grow all summer like hosta or ferns.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 19, 2020:
Oh, I need something for a real shady yard. I'm thinking these would work, right?