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
- Hylomecon japonicum
- Corydalis solida
- Jeffersonia diphylla or twinleaf
- Stylophorum diphyllum or celandine poppy
- 7 charming early perennials
Where to Buy Mertensia