- Perennials: Culture, Maintenance and Propagation
- Table of Contents
- Propagation of Perennials
- Gardening in Virginia: A Practical Guide
- KNOW YOUR ZONE
- DECIDE WHEN TO PLANT
- KNOW YOUR GARDEN
- GETTING YOUR PLANTS
- NATIVE PLANTS AND SUCCESSFUL TRANSPLANTS
- PART OF HISTORY
- When do bluebells flower? And where to see them
- When do bluebells flower?
- Do bluebells flower every year?
- Where to see bluebells
- Do bluebells smell?
- Are bluebells protected in the UK?
- Help us protect bluebells for future generations
- Bluebells Mark the Beginning of Spring at Bull Run Regional Park
- Growing Virginia Bluebells – What Are Virginia Bluebell Flowers
- About Virginia Bluebells Flowers
- Are Virginia Bluebells Invasive?
- How to Grow Virginia Bluebells
- Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
- Virginia Bluebells: Spring’s Gift
Perennials: Culture, Maintenance and Propagation
Table of Contents
Propagation of Perennials
Perennials are plants that live year after year. Trees and shrubs are perennial. Most garden flowers are herbaceous perennials. This means the tops of the plants (the leaves, stems, and flowers) die back to the ground each fall with the first frost or freeze. The roots persist through the winter, and every spring new plant tops arise. Any plant that lives through the winter is said to be hardy.
There are advantages to perennials, the most obvious being that they do not have to be set out every year like annuals. Some perennials, such as delphiniums, have to be replaced every few years. Another advantage is that with careful planning, a perennial flower bed will change colors as one type of plant finishes and another variety begins to bloom. Also, since perennials have a limited blooming period of about 2 to 3 weeks, deadheading, or removal of old blooms, is not as frequently necessary to keep them blooming. However, they do require pruning and maintenance to keep them attractive. Their relatively short bloom period is a disadvantage, but by combining early, mid-season, and late-blooming perennials, a continuous colorful show can be displayed.
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Site Location. You need to consider many of the same aspects of site selection for perennials as you do for annuals; sunlight (full sun to heavy shade), slope of the site (which affects temperature and drainage), soil type, and the role the selected plants will play in the garden. This is especially important with perennials, as they usually are left in the site for several years. In general, it is best to plant clumps of perennials rather than one plant. Large plantings may be made if space allows. An ideal location would provide a background such as a wall or hedge against which perennials will stand out while in bloom. In island beds, perennials can provide their own background if tall plants are placed in the center and low ones toward the edges.
Soil Preparation. Preparing the soil is extremely important for perennials. Some annuals can grow and flower in poorly prepared soil, but few perennials survive more than one year if the soil is not properly prepared. Preparation is best done in the fall. Proper preparation of soil will enhance success in growing perennials. First, have the soil tested. The results will indicate how much fertilizer needs to be added in the spring, and the pH level – which should be adjusted if needed. Check and adjust drainage. To do this, dig a hole about 10 inches deep and fill with water. The next day, fill with water again and see how long it remains (should not exceed 8 hours). (If drainage is poor, plan to plant in raised beds.) The next step is to dig the bed. Add 4 to 6 inches organic matter (OM) to heavy clay to improve soil texture. Dig to a depth of 12 or 18 inches and leave “rough” in fall or early spring. (Note: 2 to 3″ of OM should be applied if bed can only be turned 6 to 8″ deep.) Finally, in spring, add fertilizer, spade again, and rake the surface smooth.
Selecting Plants. It is best to select plants with a purpose in mind, such as low-growing edging plants, accents for evergreens, masses of color, rock garden specimens, etc. With specific purposes in mind, you can choose perennials by considering their characteristics and deciding which plants best meet your requirements.
For a good display from a limited number of plants in a limited space, select named varieties. Observe the flowering times of perennials in your neighborhood. That way you will be able to choose plants that will flower together and plants that will be showy when little else is in bloom. The flowering time may vary as much as 6 weeks from year to year, but plants of the same kind and their cultivars usually flower at the same time. To obtain details on particular plants or groups of plants; search the Internet, consult plant societies, specialty books, nurseries which specialize in herbaceous perennials, and local botanical gardens.
Many perennials can be bought at a local nursery. These plants usually are in bloom when they are offered for sale, which allows you to select the colors you want. However, it is better to buy perennial plants that are compact and dark green before flowering, as they will establish and grow more quickly. Plants held in warm shopping areas are seldom vigorous and generally have thin, pale, yellow stems and leaves. Avoid buying these plants. Buy named varieties of plants for known characteristics of disease resistance, heat and cold resistance, growth habits and colors.
Planting Times. Generally, late-summer or fall-flowering perennials are planted in the spring, while spring-flowering perennials are planted in late summer or early fall. However, it is wise to check exact planting dates for specific perennials. Regardless of the time of planting, perennials should be allowed sufficient time to establish themselves before blooming or the onset of cold weather.
Planting Seed Outdoors. Perennials seeded in the garden frequently fail to germinate properly because the surface of the soil cakes and prevents entry of water. To avoid this, sow the seed in vermiculite-filled furrows. Make furrows in soil about 1/2 inch deep. If soil is dry, water the furrow, then fill it with fine vermiculite and sprinkle with water. Then make another shallow furrow in the vermiculite and sow the seed in this furrow. Sow at the rate recommended on the package. Cover the seed with a layer of vermiculite, and using a nozzle adjusted for a fine mist, water the seeded area thoroughly. Keep the seed bed well-watered or cover with a mulch, such as newspaper, to prevent excess evaporation of water. Remove mulch promptly after germination starts, so that young seedlings will receive adequate sunlight.
Setting Out Plants. Whether you buy plants from a nursery, mail-order source, or start your own indoors, set them out the same way. Dig a hole for each plant large enough to accept its root system comfortably. Lift out each plant from its flat or container with a block of soil surrounding its roots. Set the soil block in a planting hole and backfill it so the plant sits at the same level. Irrigate each hole with a starter solution of high phosphate fertilizer which is water-soluble. Follow package directions. Allow plenty of space between plants, because perennials need room to develop. Perennials usually show up best when planted in clumps or groups of plants of the same variety.
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Watering. Since herbaceous perennials grow back from the roots every year, it is important to encourage healthy, deep roots. Proper watering promotes good root development. Make sure that all the roots are reached when watering. Do not rely on summer rainfall to keep flower beds watered. Plan to irrigate them from the beginning. When watering, moisten the entire bed thoroughly but do not water so heavily that the soil becomes soggy. After watering, allow the soil to dry moderately before watering again. A soaker hose is excellent for watering beds. Water from the soaker hose seeps directly into the soil without waste and without splashing leaves and flowers. The slow-moving water does not disturb the soil or reduce its capacity to absorb water. Water wands and drip systems are also good. Sprinklers are not as effective as soaker hoses. Water from sprinklers wets the flowers and foliage, making them susceptible to diseases. Soil structure may be destroyed by the impact of water drops falling on its surface; the soil may puddle or crust, preventing free entry of water and air. The least effective method for watering is with a hand-held nozzle. Watering with a nozzle has all the objections of watering with a sprinkler. In addition, gardeners seldom are patient enough to do a thorough job of watering with a nozzle; not enough water is applied, and the water that is applied is usually poorly distributed over the bed.
Mulching. Mulch gives an orderly look to the garden and cuts down on weeding. Mulches are very useful for maintaining uniform moisture conditions and reducing weeds in the garden. Soil temperatures are modified by mulches to various degrees. Organic mulches may add some nutrients and humus to the soil, improving its tilth and moisture-holding capacity. Bark, pine needles, and shredded leaves are common organic mulches used in perennial beds. Most organic mulches should be applied after plants are well-established and when there is reasonably good soil moisture. A rule of thumb for perennial borders is to apply mulch in early spring to get good weed control. Inorganic mulches, such as plastic films and paper, are applied prior to planting. Black plastic and similar materials should be spread on land that has been completely prepared for planting and has a high moisture level. All mulches require care to keep them attractive; litter is very noticeable.
Perennials should be mulched during the winter months to protect them from the heaving that results from repeated freezing and thawing of the soil. However, you must be careful with winter mulching, as it can do more harm than good. Be careful not to pile mulch heavily over the crowns, as this would encourage rotting. Evergreen branches give ample protection but allow air circulation. Apply mulch around the plants only after the soil temperature has decreased after several killing frosts. If winter mulch is applied too early, the warmth from the protected soil will cause new growth to start. Severe damage to the plant can result from new growth being frozen back. Remove winter mulch as soon as growth starts in the spring. If you don’t, new growth will develop abnormally with long, gangly, pale stems.
Weeding. A few preemergent herbicides are now registered for use in perennial flowers. However, mulching is still the best weed control for most perennials, along with hand-weeding when needed.
Fertilizing. Regular fertilization is necessary. Perennial plantings can rob the soil of its natural fertility. However, do not fertilize perennials heavily. A light fertilization program gives a continuous supply of nutrients to produce healthy plants. Use 5-10-5 fertilizer. Spread fertilizer in small rings around each plant in March. Repeat twice at 6 week intervals. This should be enough to carry plants through the summer. Apply another treatment of fertilizer to late-blooming plants in late summer. Always water the bed after applying fertilizer. This will wash the fertilizer off the foliage and prevent burn. It will also make fertilizer available to the plants immediately.
Deadheading. After perennials have bloomed, spent flowers should be removed. Cut flower stems down to a healthy leaf, or to the ground if there are no more buds. This will keep the beds looking neat and will prevent plants from wasting energy setting seed. Numerous perennials, such as delphiniums, can be forced to reblossom if cut back severely after the first bloom.
Disbudding. To gain large blooms from perennials, as opposed to more numerous but smaller blooms, plants can be disbudded. In disbudding, small side buds are removed, which allows the plant to concentrate its energy to produce one or a few large blooms. Peonies and chrysanthemums are examples of plants which are often disbudded.
Staking. Most erect perennials are top-heavy and taller ones need staking. If plants fall over, the stem will function poorly where it has been bent. If the stem is cracked, disease organisms can penetrate the break. Stake plants when you set them out so they will grow to cover the stakes. When staked, tall perennials can better withstand hard, driving rain and wind.
Select stakes that will be 6 to 12 inches shorter than the height of the grown plant. Place stakes behind the plants and sink them into the ground far enough to be firm. Loosely tie plants to the stakes, using paper covered wire, plastic, or other soft material. Tie the plant by making a double loop of the wire with one loop around the plant and the other around the stake. Never loop the tie around both stake and plant. The plant will hang to one side and the wire may girdle the stem. Add ties as the stem lengthens.
Fall Care. In the fall, after the foliage of perennials has died down, remove dead leaves, stems, and spent flowers. These materials often harbor insects and disease-causing organisms. Apply winter mulch after the soil temperature has dropped.
Controlling Insects and Diseases. Although perennials in general are healthy plants, there are occasionally some problems. It is advisable to select resistant varieties. Plant perennials in conditions of light, wind, spacing, and soil textures which are suited to them. Remove spent flowers, dead leaves, and other plant litter, as these serve as a source of reinfestation. It is advisable to know the major insect and disease pests (if any) of each specific plant type grown, so that problems can be correctly diagnosed and treated if they arise.
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Propagation of Perennials
Division. Most perennials left in the same place for more than 3 years are likely to be overgrown, overcrowded, have dead or unsightly centers, and need basic fertilizer and soil amendments. The center of the clump will grow poorly, if at all, and the flowers will be sparse. The clump will deplete the fertility of the soil as the plant crowds itself. To divide mature clumps of perennials, select only vigorous side shoots from the outer part of the clump. Discard the center of the clump. Divide the plant into clumps of three to five shoots each. Be careful not to over-divide; too small a clump will not give much color the first year after replanting. Divide perennials when the plants are dormant, just before a new season of growth, or in the fall so they can become established before the ground freezes. Stagger plant divisions so the whole garden will not be redone at the same time; good rotation will yield a display of flowers each year. Do not put all the divisions back into the same space that contained the original plant. That would place too many plants in a given area. Give extra plants to friends, plant them elsewhere in the yard, or discard them.
Gardening in Virginia: A Practical Guide
In recent years there has been a growing interest in natural and organic produce, free of commercial pesticides. And what could be more natural and organic than growing your own plants? Virginia has an excellent climate for gardening, being mostly quite temperate. Whether you have acres of farmland or just a small yard or patio in an urban area, anyone can start a garden. In this brief guide, we’ll explore the basics of gardening in Virginia and give you some ideas of how to get started.
KNOW YOUR ZONE
The first step to starting a garden is figuring out what will grow well in your area. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is an excellent resource. The average coldest temperatures for an area determine plant hardiness zones. Most of Virginia falls into Zones 6 and 7, with minimum temperatures of -10 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
A small area of the highest mountain regions in Highland County fall into Zone 5 with minimum temperatures as low as -20 while some areas around Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay fall into Zone 8, with higher minimum temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Virginia zone map provides more detail, and more information about plant hardiness zones can be found on the USDA website.
DECIDE WHEN TO PLANT
In general, the western portion of the state with its many mountains is the coldest, and the climate warms as you move east towards the coast. Most of the state has a relatively long growing season, and planting can begin sometime in March or April. In the western region, the growing season is shorter, and planting should not begin earlier than the middle of May.
Each plant will have a different ideal planting time based not only on your location, but also the particular needs of the plant. Some resources on planting schedules include:
- Urban Farmer
- Farmer’s Almanac
- Virginia Cooperative Extension
KNOW YOUR GARDEN
Temperature is important to gardening, but it is not the only factor. Sun exposure, humidity, and soil quality are some of the other important considerations for your garden. Sunlight in particular can make a big difference.
If you have plenty of space and can choose the location of your garden, you will be able to control the amount of light and shade that your plants receive. If you have only a small area for your garden, though, you may have to work with what you have. Take note of how much light and shade your garden area gets during the day and choose plants that will thrive in those light conditions.
Consider, also, how much space and soil depth is required for each plant. Some plants will fare better than others in close quarters or in pots. If your gardening space is small, you will want to make the most of the space you have.
GETTING YOUR PLANTS
In general, you have two choices when it comes to acquiring plants for your garden: you can grow them from seeds yourself, or you can buy young plants from a nursery. Some plants are easier to grow from seeds than others. Consider your gardening skill level and do some research on your desired plants to decide what is right for you. You may decide on a combination of both.
If you choose to buy from a nursery, consider a smaller local nursery as your source. You can be guaranteed that these plants are grown locally, while this may not be the case for larger nurseries. In addition, you will almost certainly staff members who are very knowledgeable about your specific gardening area and, most likely, only too happy to share their expertise.
NATIVE PLANTS AND SUCCESSFUL TRANSPLANTS
Noted Virginian William Byrd II recorded extensive observations on the plants and crops found in Virginia in the mid 18th century. Below, you will find just a few suggestions, both from his writings and from other sources, that may be good choices for your 21st century garden.
- Broad bean (fava beans)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Sweet peppers
- Snap beans
- Snow peas
- Squash (several varieties)
- Grapes (some varieties)
- Lemon balm
PART OF HISTORY
When you choose to start a garden in Virginia, you are part of a long tradition that dates back centuries. Virginia is home to some of the oldest gardens in the United States. If you want to gain inspiration or valuable knowledge about gardening in Virginia, you could visit one or more of these historic gardens.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent home in Charlottesville, Virginia, is notable for many reasons, including its extensive gardens. The gardens at Monticello include flowers, fruits, and vegetables. The gardens you can see today were recreated from archival and archeological evidence to resemble the originals as closely as possible. In addition to these historic gardens, Monticello is also home to the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. The center collects, preserves, and distributes historic plant varieties and works to build awareness and appreciation for the history of garden plants.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, founded in 1984, is newer than the other gardens mentioned here, but it is a valuable resource for any Virginia gardening enthusiast, boasting a huge variety of plants in over 50 acres of gardens.
Agecroft Hall and Virginia House, also located in Richmond, are English transplants. These manor houses were dismantled and brought to Virginia in the early 20th century. The gardens here are modeled the gardens of centuries past and include both decorative and functional gardens.
Westover Plantation in Charles City County was the home of William Byrd II. The grounds of the estate include formal gardens like those that would have been seen in the 18th century when Byrd was writing his botanical observations.
Colonial Williamsburg is the country’s largest living history museum. Hundreds of interpreters recreate 18th century Virginia life for visitors. The grounds include 90 gardens on over 100 acres of land, all made to resemble those of our colonial ancestors as closely as possible.
With a little inspiration and plenty of research, your Virginia garden is sure to flourish. Good luck, and don’t forget to like and share!
When do bluebells flower? And where to see them
A carpet of shimmering bluebells is a breathtaking sight! Here in the UK we have more than half of the world’s bluebells and you can see them in woods up and down the country each spring.
When do bluebells flower?
Bluebells usually flower from mid-April to late May, depending on the weather. If spring is mild they tend to bloom early. They’ll often first appear in the South West where it’s a little warmer than the rest of the UK.
Bluebells are one of the species we record on our Nature’s Calendar website. People tell us when they first see the flowers so we can map their arrival. Together with the other records we collect, this data helps scientists measure the effect of climate change on the seasons.
Head out to see vibrant bluebells this spring. (Photo: Rob Grange/WTML.)
Do bluebells flower every year?
Yes, bluebells are perennial plants – this means they flower every year. They soak up the early spring sunshine and store it as energy in their bulbs underground. They then use this energy to bloom the following spring.
Where to see bluebells
Bluebells are traditionally woodland flowers. Sometimes they grow very close together creating dazzling blue carpets! If you find lots of bluebells it could be a sign that you’re in a very old wood. You may see them growing in hedgerows, fields and gardens too.
Exploring a bluebell wood in spring is a magical experience for the whole family. Check out our top bluebell woods to see if there’s one near you.
You’ll often find bluebells in very old woods. (Photo: Lesley Newcombe/WTML)
Do bluebells smell?
Yes, native bluebells have a strong, sweet scent. Next time you see some, crouch down and give them a sniff!
Are bluebells protected in the UK?
Yes, native bluebells are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It’s against the law to dig up bulbs in the wild and landowners aren’t allowed to dig them up to sell them either.
You can help us look after bluebells by staying on the paths while exploring woods. They are delicate plants and can be damaged by lots of people trampling on them, so watch your step!
Bluebells are very delicate flowers. Always stick to the paths to avoid stepping on them. (Photo: MachineHeadz/iStockphoto.)
Help us protect bluebells for future generations
If you and your children enjoy spending time in woods, have a look at Woodland Trust family membership.
When you join, your kids will receive activity packs through the post every season. They are packed with art projects, puzzles, competitions and facts to help children learn about trees and wildlife. And as members you’ll help us protect beautiful bluebell woods right here in the UK, so people can enjoy them for many years to come.
People desperate for the arrival of spring may have to wait another few weeks for one of the key signs of the season – bluebell blooming.
The cold weather means the bluebells normally carpeting woodlands at this time of year are weeks late, as the chilly conditions have caused the stalks to grow more slowly, the National Trust said.
Bluebell flowering is predicted to be three to four weeks away, and the peak could be delayed until mid May or later.
The late arrival of bluebells after the coldest March since 1962 contrasts with last year, when one of the warmest and driest Marches on record saw the flowers peak by this time.
Matthew Oates, naturalist for the National Trust, said: “The bluebell starts growing in January with its sole purpose to flower before the other woodland plants. However timing of flowering depends on elevation, latitude, aspect, soils, geology and local climate conditions.
The same area this year, with the bluebells delayed by cold weather
“The true beauty of our bluebells – the colour, the scent, the view – makes them an essential and special element to our springtime experience.”
There is some potentially good news to be drawn from a late spring, says Oates. “Make no mistake, spring is going to happen and it may be all the better for the wait. What’s interesting is that there is a really good link between late springs and very good summers and we are due – overdue – a very good summer,” he said.
“Bluebell flowering normally peaks in a wave across the country, starting in the south-west and fanning out across the UK, but cold, poor springs can make them more patchy and dependent on their location.”
One site where bluebells bloomed much later this year is the Woodland Trust’s Heartwood Forest, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, where flowering is weeks behind 2012.
Bluebells in full bloom. Photograph: National Trust
Louise Neicho, Heartwood Forest site manager, said: “Last year by this time we had vivid carpets of bluebells in the ancient woodland we look after on site, this year there is not even a hint of purple as yet.
“The bluebells are clearly lagging behind, they could be as much as two or three weeks late. It will be interesting to see if this weekend’s warmer temperatures have any effect.”
Half the world’s bluebell population can be found in the UK, but British varieties are at risk of disappearing as a result of competition from other plants, and crossbreeding with scentless and paler non-native Spanish bluebells.
When you mention spring wildflowers in the Washington DC area, the first flower that comes to mind for most people are the Virginia Bluebells. These delicate blue flowers bloom in late March and early April – and if you catch them at the right moment – you often see the forest carpeted with wildflowers.
© 2013 Patty Hankins
Virginia Bluebells – mertensia virginica – are members of the Borage or Forget-Me-Not family. They are native to most of the eastern United States and Canada with the exception of Louisiana, Florida, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island. They are listed as threatened in Michigan and vulnerable in New York.
© 2013 Patty Hankins
Bluebell plants grow to about 2 feet tall. They have silver green leaves. The flowers start as pink buds – which open out to the light blue flowers. Occasionally, you’ll see flowers that remain pink after they open.
© 2011 Patty Hankins
The flowers of the Virginia bluebells are often described as either trumpet or bell shaped. They have five petals that fuse to create a tube, five stamens and a center pistil.
© 2013 Patty Hankins
Bluebells grow in the woods – in areas of part shade. They prefer areas with plenty of water – moist woods and river bottoms.
© 2013 Patty Hankins
Native Americans used parts of the Virginia Bluebell plants to treat a range of illnesses including whooping cough, tuberculosis and venereal diseases. It was used as an antidote to some poisons.
© 2010 Patty Hankins
Every spring I love seeing the Virginia Bluebells in bloom. I’m already thinking about where I’ll go to photograph them this year. one of my favorite places to photograph them is at Bull Run State Park. Do you have a favorite place to photograph theVirginia Bluebells?
More information about Virginia Bluebells can be found at
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Missouri Botanical Garden
Native American Ethnobotany Index
USDA Plant Profiles
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Bluebells Mark the Beginning of Spring at Bull Run Regional Park
This time of year always brings so much excitement for nature lovers. The tease of warm weather, daylight gracing hours that have been dark for months and most importantly, the beautiful flowers, trees and shrubs that begin to bloom all around.
At Bull Run Regional Park the Bluebells are currently in bloom and frankly, we can’t get enough of them. Every year the park begins recieving calls, emails and social media inquiries as early as the beginning of February, asking when the Bluebells will begin to bloom. Photographers, families, hikers and nature lovers travel from near and far to come experience the carpet of blue that runs throughout the park and along the trails.
Megan Schuster, Assistant Park Manager at Bull Run Regional Park, shared with us the excitement and hype that the Bluebells bring, not only for visitors, but for the staff as well.
“This year I’ve basically been stalking them, mostly for the social media pictures but also because it’s fun to watch them bloom,” Megan said. She told us to be on the look out for the “Phases of Bluebell Growth” that she will be updating on the park’s Facebook page. The blooms are so captivating that Megan has been known to find herself hiking the trails on her days off.
“My friend and I have been on the Bluebell Trail (a one and a half mile loop that explores the forest around Bull Run) at least once a week since the beginning of March and I bring my family out every year,” she noted. Although the carpet of blue steals the show, that is not the only spring pastel that pops up in the park at peak bloom. The Bluebells can also be pink or white and are beautifully blended in a sea of other wildflowers. If you have yet to experience Bull Run Regional Park while the Bluebells are in bloom, it is something to pencil in to your schedule. There are few better ways to shake off the last chill of winter, than by escaping down the Bluebell Trail and taking in nature’s blue, periwinkle, pink and white decorations.
For more photos and updates on the Bluebells, be sure to like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter!
Growing Virginia Bluebells – What Are Virginia Bluebell Flowers
Growing Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in their native range is a great way to add pretty spring and early summer color. These gorgeous wildflowers thrive in partially shady woodlands and can be used to naturalize gardens, in beds, wooded areas, and borders.
About Virginia Bluebells Flowers
This pretty wildflower is, unfortunately, endangered throughout much of its native range due to habitat loss. If you’re planning a native garden, this is a great addition. When bluebells first emerge in early spring, they have striking, deep purple foliage.
The leaves then quickly turn green and the entire plant will grow up to 24 inches (61 cm.) tall in clump formations. The flowers bloom early to mid-spring and continue into mid-summer, when the plants go dormant.
Bluebells flowers are showy. They hang down in clusters
of lavender or blue bell-shaped flowers. These are prettiest on the plant and don’t make good cut flowers. The fragrance is light and sweet. Bees and hummingbirds are attracted to bluebells.
Are Virginia Bluebells Invasive?
The native range for Virginia bluebells includes most of eastern North America. It grows naturally as far north as Quebec and Ontario and south to Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. To the west its range extends to about the Mississippi River with Kansas being the westernmost location you’ll find these bluebells as native plants.
In other areas, Virginia bluebells may be considered invasive. Even in the native range, it is important to be aware of how readily this wildflower self-seeds. It will spread rapidly and form dense clumps and colonies.
How to Grow Virginia Bluebells
Knowing where to plant Virginia bluebells is the first step in growing them successfully. They need dappled sun or partial shade, so a wooded area of your yard is perfect. The soil should drain well but stay reliably moist with a lot of rich, organic material.
Given the right location and climate, you shouldn’t have to do too much to maintain bluebells. Propagate them by seed or by divisions, but avoid moving these plants if you can. They develop a long taproot and don’t like to be transplanted. To propagate your existing plants, only dig them up when dormant, in the fall or very early spring.
Virginia bluebells is a native woodland wildflower.
Virginia bluebells is a native wildflower found in moist woodlands and river flood plains in eastern North America from New York to Minnesota up into Canada (Ontario and Quebec), and from Kansas to Alabama. Mertensia virginica is one of about 40 species in this genus of herbaceous perennials with blue, bell-shaped flowers. Other common names include eastern bluebells, Virginia cowslip, and lungwort oysterleaf.
Virginia bluebells and daffodils blooming in spring.
This plant in the borage family (Boraginaceae) is hardy in zones 3-9. It is considered threatened in its native range, primarily because of habitat destruction and the prevention of natural flooding of rivers, and is increasingly found only in isolated locations.
This ephemeral perennial plant comes up early in the spring. The emerging foliage is deep purple, but quickly turns green. Plants have smooth, oval, blue- to gray-green leaves with prominent veins.
The plants emerge early in spring, changing from deep purple to green as the leaves expand.
The alternate leaves are petiolate at the bottom of the stem, but change to sessile at the top. The leaves may be from 2-8 inches long, with the longer leaves at the base of the plant. The smooth stems are almost succulent, but nearly hollow, so plants are fragile and will break readily. The occasionally branched stems are mostly green, but may be tinged a purple color, especially at the base.
Plants go dormant in early summer.
The erect clumps grow up to 2 feet tall and about a foot wide, but die back to the ground by early summer as the plant goes dormant shortly after flowering and setting seed. Many novice gardeners mistakenly think their plants have died, only to be surprised the following year when the bluebells emerge in early spring more vigorous than before.
Virginia bluebells bloom in mid-spring, quickly going from the bud stage (L) to full bloom (R).
Virginia bluebells bloom in mid-spring (typically from mid-April through mid-May in Wisconsin). Loose clusters of flowers (cymes) are borne at the ends of coiled or arched stems. They do not make a very good cut flower. Purplish pink buds open to sky blue flowers with a delicate, sweet fragrance. There are some variants with pink or white flowers. The pendulous, bell-shaped flowers are composed of five petals fused into a tube, with five white stamens with light brown anthers and a long, slender white central pistil.
Buds and flowers of Mertensia virginica.
The flowers up to one inch long are pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees, but are visited as well as by several types of butterflies, skippers and hummingbird moths, flower flies (syrphids), bee flies and hummingbirds. The bloom period is about 3 weeks. Fertilized flowers produce wrinkled nuts, each with four seeds, in early summer.
Virginia bluebells naturalize easily in shady gardens.
Mertensia virginica is easily naturalized in moist, shady woodland and works well in wildflower gardens. It combines well with bleeding heart, celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) and Trillium grandiflorum for an exclusively spring garden. Another great combination is with yellow daffodils and pink tulips for a lovely spring show.
Virginia bluebells combine well with hostas.
Virginia bluebells can be used in borders or other beds, but the dying foliage and blank spaces when dormant need to be addressed. If interplanted with other shade-loving perennials, such as hosta, astilbe, bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa), hosta, Solomon’s seal, twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) or ferns, these other plants will fill in the gaps later in the season.
Virginia bluebells, celandine poppy and May apple in a woodland garden.
Empty spaces can also be overplanted with shallow-rooted annuals. When used in mixed beds, the plants’ location should be marked in some way to avoid digging them up or planting directly on top of them when dormant.
This species prefers part to full shade and moist, rich soil. Plant potted plants 10-18″ apart in the fall or after the last frost in spring. Virginia bluebells often forms dense colonies, and will readily self seed under ideal conditions – almost to the point of being invasive.
Seedlings have two bright green cotyledons and the first true leaf grows opposite those.
Small seedlings can be transplanted, but take several years to bloom. Plants have a long taproot, so once established, they don’t like to be disturbed, but if necessary, larger plants should be moved when dormant. They do best when moisture is abundant, and will decline if the soil is too dry. They have few pests, and are not favored by deer.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Mar 30th, 2016
Virginia Bluebells: Spring’s Gift
The tiny fairy-bell like flowers of the Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) in Flagler Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
Virginia bluebells tend to grow in clusters.
If ever there was a plant with a fandom in Virginia, it would be the Virginia bluebell. Mertensia virginica makes fast friends with anyone new she meets. A native wildflower, you are just as likely to find her at Pony Pasture in the James River Park System as you are to find her here at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. No matter where you meet her, she’s sure to make a big impression.
Here are the top 5 reasons I love Virginia bluebells.
- They seem to appear overnight. Two short weeks ago I went searching for these beauties. I knew just where they should be growing and I couldn’t find them. They were still underground with not even a trace of their green foliage showing. Now, they are a sea of green, pink and blue beckoning you to come see their graceful bell-shaped blooms dance in the breeze.
- Spring ephemerals are wonderful particularly because you know they will last only a short time. Carpe diem. Seize the day and come enjoy them now before they are gone! (Don’t worry, they’ll be back next year.)
This Virginia bluebell plant (photographed at Pony Pasture) is particularly unusual because it was blooming in both pink and blue. Typically, the buds are pink and they turn to blue by the time they open.
- Virginia bluebells are blue. Botanically speaking, true blue is pretty unusual in a bloom — especially a wildflower. Even more unusual: a native plant that features both blue and pink blossoms.
- Virginia Bluebells are opportunists. They sprout out of the ground and soak up all the sun they can before the trees in the woodland surrounding them leaf out and block their sunshine.
- Immature Virginia Bluebells look like pink raisins. These fun little buds will make you look twice. Amazing that these tiny pink buds can grow into bluebells!
Don’t the pink buds of Virginia bluebells look like little raisins?
So don’t wait, come see these beauties! They’ll only be here for a short while. You’ll find them in Flagler Garden, just across the West Island Garden walkway.
What are the reasons you love Virginia Bluebells? We’d love to hear, just leave a comment.