April Flora Spotlight:
Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia
The botanical name of this plant honors Franz Karl Mertens, a German botanist (1764-1831) who was a noted collector of plants. The name refers to
Virginia, where the plant was first identified. Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia Bluebells at Monticello which inspired the
garden writers of the 18th century to call them "Jefferson's
blue funnel flowers".
Virginia bluebells have two interesting properties that contribute to their success as spring
ephemeral wild flowers. Virginia bluebells form buds that are pink in color. When the flower
is ready for pollination, it increases its alkalinity to change the red
pigmentation into blue pigmentation, a color that is much more attractive to pollinators. When the flower is pollinated
and seed formation begins, it falls to the ground so that subsequent pollinators will only find
those that still require pollination. The stamens and stigma are spaced too far apart for self-fertilization. The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees, but
are visited as well by several types of butterflies, skippers, hummingbird moths, flower flies
(syrphids), bee flies and hummingbirds.
Mertensia virginica is easily naturalized when massed and left undisturbed in moist, shady
woodland, wildflower or native plant gardens. The foliage dies to the ground by mid-summer
as the plant goes dormant. If interplanted with other shade-loving perennials, such as astilbe,
bugbane, Solomon seal, twinleaf or ferns, these other plants will fill in the gaps later in the
When used in mixed beds, the plantsí location should be marked in some way to avoid digging
them up or planting directly on top of them when dormant. Plants have a long taproot, so once
established; they donít like to be disturbed. Plants should be moved when dormant.
It is easy to see why Virginia Bluebells is a favorite woodland wildflower. The pastel colors of
the flowers and foliage are soft and soothing.