Virginia Bluebells is a spring flowering native erect perennial that grows up to 2 feet high on hairless fleshy stems that sometimes branch. Stems are quite succulent and partly hollow.
Leaves: The elliptical or egg shaped alternate leaves can have a bluish appearance, have rounded tips, are without hair and the uppers are usually stalkless while the lower leaves can be quite large up to 3 x 6 inches and may taper to a short winged stalk. Margins are smooth, there is a pinnate vein pattern and the leaves have an overall soft floppy appearance.
The inflorescence begins as a small, stalked, branched cluster (a cyme) at the the end of stems. The cluster elongates during flowering.
Flower buds can have a pink tinge; the trumpet shaped flowers are five-parted, up to an inch long, normally blue, but can be white as albinos occur within the Mertensia genus (example below), and are nodding on a hairless stalk. There are five white stamens with bluish-tan anthers, and a white style in the center. The calyx has five pointed teeth with rounded tips and the calyx tube and flower stalk take on a greenish-purple color. At the base of the flower cluster are small leaf-like bracts.
Seed: Flowers mature to 4 dry dark brown to black, wrinkled nutlets. One side is mostly flat, the others rounded, tapered on one end to a point. Seeds need 60 days of cold stratification for germination. Best planted in the Fall.
Habitat: Virginia Bluebells is a late April to early May bloomer whose foliage will die back by mid summer. Plants need moist soil (wet-mesic to mesic) in light shade to partial sun. Full sun will wilt them quickly during the day. Shade too heavy and too much rain will reduce flower color considerably. When left to go to seed, the plant self seeds new plants easily. Plant records kept up to the year 2000 show that the earliest bloom date in the Garden was April 24 and the latest was May 11.
Names: The genus Mertensia is an honorary for German Botanist Franz Carl Mertens (1764-1831), professor of botany at Bremen and who published the 3rd edition of Deutschlands Flora. The species virginica, means 'of Virginia'. The author names for the plant classification are ‘Pers.’ who is Christiaan Hendrik Persoon (1761-1836), South African born botanist, educated in Europe, maintained a large herbarium, published Synopsis Plantarum, describing 20,000 species, but best known for his work in the fungi. His work on this species was corrected and republished by ‘Link’ who is Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link (1767-1851) German naturalist and botanist who succeeded Willdenow as director and curator of the Botanic Garden of Berlin, published widely and named many species. All this updated the original work of '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparison: The only similar plant in our area that may confuse is the Tall (or Northern) Bluebells, Mertensia paniculata, but there the flowers are a deeper blue, funnel, not trumpet, shape, and the leaves are hairy with a long pointed tip; furthermore their native ranges do not overlap within Minnesota.
Above: The calyx tube has five pointed lobes with rounded tips; it and the flower stalk have a greenish-purple color. Note the leaf-like bracts at the base of the flower cluster.
Below: The flower buds can have a pink tinge of color. The flowers may turn out to be white as this example shows. Shade too deep and excess rain can also bleach out the flower display, but there are also white flowered plants - see photo far below.
Below: The calyx teeth reflex a bit when the flower is fully open. There are five stamens and one white style. The large lower leaves can be very floppy. They die back by mid-summer.
Below: The underside of the leaf has a paler color and shows prominent veins.
Below: Fertilized flowers produce 4 dry dark nutlets, flattened on one side and with a wrinkled surface.
Below: An example of a white flowered variety,
Below: Bluebells can form nice large clumps and spread outward by self seeding.
Notes: Virginia Bluebells are not indigenous to the Garden area or native to the metro area of the state. Eloise Butler's Garden Log shows her planting 3 specimens on April 30, 1912 and 12 on Sept. 23, 1917, all obtained from Gillett's Nursery, Southwick MA. Others were planted in 1923 and '31. Martha Crone noted planting it in the spring of 1938, '45, '49 and '51. She planted seeds in 1944, '53 and '54, and 50 white variety from a Mrs. Knudsen in Springfield Ill. in 1957. White flowered plants still exist in the Garden (2018). Cary George planted Bluebells in 1993 and it has been planted again by Susan Wilkins as recently as 2020.
Virginia Bluebells are native to the SE section of Minnesota. In North America its range is eastward from the Mississippi River except Louisiana and Florida and the Maritime provinces of Canada. This species is one of two species of Mertensia found in Minnesota, the other being Tall (or Northern) Bluebells, Mertensia paniculata, which is equally scarce but more restricted to the NE quadrant of the state.
The flowers are the beautiful blue color of the late April sky. Although Eloise Butler introduced them to the Garden, curiously, in all of her writings about plants in the Garden she only seems to have mentioned them once - in 1928 in Spring Exhibits in the Native Plant Reserve which was submitted for publication in the Asa Gray Bulletin of the Agassiz Association.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"