How To Grow and Care for Virginia Bluebells (The Most Elegant of Native Woodland Perennials)

Last Updated on September 7, 2020 by Kimberly Crawford

One of nature’s most unforgettable flowers is the Virginia bluebell. They are absolutely breathtaking in masses of intense blue rippling across the woodland floor.

One of the earliest flowers to bloom in spring, it is sometimes difficult to see Virginia bluebells in nature without trekking through mud and out of the way places. But this shade and water-loving spring perennial is stunning when hundreds and thousands of them bloom simultaneously—it is a sight one is not likely to forget. And it makes the trek and the mud well worth it.

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica or M. pulmonarioides) are also called Virginia cowslips, Chiming Bells, Mountain Bluebells, Roanoke Bells, or Languid Ladies. Although Lungwort Oysterleafs are sometimes confused with Virginia Bluebells, they actually live along rocky to sandy coastal shorelines.

guide to growing virginia bluebells

What is Special About Virginia Bluebells?

What is Special About Virginia Bluebells?

Virginia bluebells emerge in the spring as deep purple leaves that, when exposed to sunlight, turn grayish green. The elegant arched flower stalk that emerges holds clusters of flower buds in colors of gentle cerise and lilac.

As the buds grow upward to meet the sun and begin to unfold, they turn in a stunning cluster of cerulean blue, at first kissed with touches of lilac, and then bursting forth into clusters of blue bells that stand tall and rise above the gentle green leaves as if they are watching the approach of spring.

While most Virginia bluebells are blue in color, some few are white or pink. Others change from pink to blue as they age in much the same way as their close relative, the lungwort (Pulmonaria).

Bluebells in Nature

Bluebells in Nature

The Virginia bluebells bloom in April to May, depending on which zone they are growing in. After these delicately scented blooms last two to three weeks, the foliage begins turn yellow and then to die. They will remain dormant throughout the summer, fall, and winter, until one day in spring the observer will be almost surprised to see the plants arise again.

The Virginia bluebell is a hardy perennial native to eastern North America. This woodland plant prefers slight to full shade and thrives in acidic, moist to wet, humus-rich woodland-type soil. They can be found in various places—upland forests, floodplain forests, wetlands, and bluffs—each of which claims them as its own.

You will find fields of Virginia bluebells here and there, from Tennessee to New York and then to Wisconsin. Because they readily re-seed themselves, they are one of the best plants for naturalizing themselves. It is not surprising that bluebells are favorites of many people who associate them with a time gone by, a simpler time; others simply enjoy their gentle beauty.

Growing Virginia Bluebells

Growing Virginia Bluebells

Bluebells can be grown in home gardens from zone 3a to 9b. Whether they will grow, of course, depends on the conditions in which they are planted. For a satisfying experience growing Virginia bluebells in the garden, one must come as close as possible to recreating the woodland setting in which they live naturally.

Diseases and pests do not bother the hardy little bluebell plant, but hot sun, hard, dry soil, or alkaline soil will almost certainly do them in. Sandy soil that retains little moisture creates conditions far too dry for the bluebells without constant watering.

Since Virginia bluebells are woodland plants it is best to keep the roots cool by mulching. They should be watered regularly during the spring to keep the soil moist, and once the plants are blooming, they may still need an occasional watering. Following the end of the growing season, when the bluebells go into dormancy and the leaves decay completely they do not require watering.

Once Virginia bluebells are established, they do not take well to being handled or otherwise disturbed. This means you should not cut the flowers off the plants, mow down the foliage, handle them, or permit dogs and children to tread on them. Take these points in consideration when deciding where to plant these beauties. 

Although Virginia bluebells go dormant almost immediately after blooming, they do well if planted with hosta and woodland flowers like columbine, ferns, bleeding hearts, wild ginger, and dutchman’s breeches that will hide their die back. This will also lessen the possibility that the ‘empty’ space left by the dormant Virginia bluebells will be damaged in some way.

Propagating Virginia Bluebells

Propagating Virginia Bluebells

You should not transplant Virginia bluebells when they are in bloom. They can be propagated and transplanted by dividing them in the spring after they finish blooming but before the plants begin to undergo senescence. You can also expose the plant’s roots and take a root cutting. Bluebells will self-sow, and the volunteer seedlings can be carefully dug up and transplanted into a new area. The latter is the safest way to propagate the plant.

They should be transplanted into a shady or mostly shaded area in woodland type soil that is very fertile, moist, and has a pH close to 7 (neutral pH). It will take at least three years for the Virginia bluebells to bloom. Whichever way they are propagated, the Virginia bluebells should be planted about 12 inches apart.