a plant i’d order this fall: virginia bluebells

I HAVEN’T GLIMPSED EVEN A LEAF of Virginia bluebells in months here, but it’s on my mind at the moment, anyhow. Why? Because I’d like to add more, and fall is a good time to layer in more Mertensia virginica, an ephemeral American wildflower whose fleeting April-May flowers leave a lasting impression.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says Mertensia is native from southern Ontario to eastern Minnesota, down to North Carolina, Arkansas and eastern Kansas, and “naturalized northeastward.” I have never seen it in the wild, but even a grouping of five or so plants can be dramatic in the early spring home garden.

Virginia bluebells (Zones 4-7, maybe warmer) is summer-dormant, but before its long late-June-to-April nap, it shows off bigtime. A beautiful clump of foliage comes first—tender looking, with a blue-green cast. Then come the flower stems (temporarily making the plant not just a foot tall but almost twice that), and blooms that mature then fade through a brilliant spectrum of lavender to blues and pinks (how it starts off, below).  Once the show is over, the foliage turns a showy yellow—as if it’s its own personal autumn—then fades.

As with all ephemerals, be sure to plan for a spot where something else will fill in once the bluebells disappear—hostas, for instance, or ferns or other foliage stars of the later shady to semi-shady garden. Here in the North, I grow some Virginia bluebells in slightly sunnier conditions than their native woodland conditions, but I’m sure to give them medium to moist soil—not a dry, hot spot.

Mertensia grows from rhizomes, so it’s best divided when dormant, which is why it is a popular fall offering from nurseries that sell it.  Remember: It’s best in groups (but even if you start with one, a happy plant will eventually sow itself around).

More Early Beauties to Add to the Shade Garden

Where to Buy Mertensia


  1. Brian G. says:

    Love them. It’s one of the first plants I put in the ground seven years ago. So many shades in one flower. Amazing.

  2. Irena says:

    I have been perennially undecided which one to choose: mertensia or pulmonaria, and guess what I see in your, dear Margaret, suggestions: both! With a post on each of them! But I only have a space for one (or a half, to be more accurate)! What is a poor small-garden gardener to do?!…

  3. Jason says:

    I love this plant and have lots in various parts of my shady back yard. I deal with the disappearing foliage by deploying annuals, containers, and ferns. This is a great one for seeding itself randomly around your yard.

  4. Dahlink says:

    Irena, we planted both Virginia bluebells and Pulmonaria in our shady Maryland garden some 20 years ago. The Pulmonaria died out after 2-3 years, but the Mertensia comes back year after year, and spreads on its own accord. It is gorgeous among daffodils and near forsythia. It was a gift from my in laws’ garden, so of course Spring is always full of memories of family members.

  5. Beverly says:

    In Zone 6, eastern PA, Mertensia has been very reliable in my shady garden for almost 10 years. I have seen several new seedlings, too, right in the vicinity. I pile on my own compost in the fall to keep the moisture retentive qualities of the soil on the high side. I avoid heavy mulches, though, since I want Mertensia to be successful in self sowing. It is such a welcome sight in the early spring. I use Hostas in back ot it and on one side, and a ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera on the other side to help mask the blank spot after the Bluebells go dormant. Works very well.

  6. Elaine says:

    Such a beautiful plant! It becomes more precious when we only get it for a short time! I haven’t noticed many here in the Northwest, but I’ll keep my eyes open for them. Thanks for the post!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Elaine. They don’t last for too many weeks, but what a great moment it is. See you soon again, I hope.

  7. Leslie says:

    Here in zone 5 they do really well in the shade/understory and will last many weeks, unless, like this year, it is very hot and dry in March! We love them, I agree with others, great with yellow as a contrast and do spread : ) Our hostas grow up right amidst them and fill in as the Mertensia goes dormant.

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Leslie, and get the feedback on how they do for you. I agree. Great extra “moment” in the same space as things like Hosta, yes.

  8. Liz says:

    I inherited masses of Virginia Bluebells in my previous garden. I would love to scavenge some for my current garden ( the new owners have been very generous in this way). I’m wondering if there is a best time to move them. Seems it would be easiest when they are just showing up in spring rather than trying to find the roots in the fall but I really don’t know what’s in the plant’s best interest. Any advice, tips would be greatly appreciated.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Liz. I’d move it while dormant or (easier maybe) when it BARELY shows in the very early spring, before it really starts growing much at all. If you plan to do when dormant,mark the areas carefully so you’ll know where to dig.

  9. Marilyn says:

    You mentioned you’d never seen it in the wild. One of my favorite wildflower memories is a huge expanse of Virginia bluebells on a bend of a river. They were growing on a wide flat area raised a foot above water level that looked like it must get flooded occasionally. It was breathtaking to come around the bend of the river in the canoe and see all that blue. Appropriately enough, this was in the Mt Rogers area of south-western Virginia.

  10. Mrs H says:

    Breaktaking as you drive along Chester County, PA roads in wooded areas. They look like little gnomes and fairies live among them!

  11. Cherie says:

    A favorite of mine for years in my northern NY gardens, I brought them to Colorado 7500′ zone 4, a couple of years ago and they are doing great! Love them!

  12. Lauri Cardinali says:

    These lovely flowers were EVERYWHERE in the beautifully natural gardens of Winterthur last week in Delaware. There, they appear to re-seed enthusiastically.. I have had one clump for several years. Each year the clump gets bigger, but has never re-seeded. So, I followed the advice that Margaret wrote in my book when she signed it, “Never stop wanting more plants,” and I bought another at Winterthur. Maybe this one will be the magical re-seeder!

  13. Jill Long says:

    I planted 2 this spring. So far I’ve only seen 2 pair of leaves for each plant. Did I plant them to deep? I was also wondering if they will survive until next year.

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