Spring Ephemeral: Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells)
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) light up the winter-thawed forest floors with their iconic periwinkle blooms arranged in spiraling cyme inflorescence. But did you know that these small flowers offer more than just a pretty face? Mertensia virginica can be a robust addition to restoration plantings, and their role as Spring ephemerals remind us of the importance of biodiverse plantings.
Harbingers of Spring
Even in the cold of March, these pioneers push up from the cold ground to bring the news to the rest of us: Spring has arrived. Virginia bluebells light up the winter-thawed forest floors with their iconic periwinkle blooms arranged in spiraling cyme inflorescence. Their trumpet-shaped flowers can range from white, to pink, to the most commonly recognized blueish purple. Due to the elongated shape of the flower, butterflies and moths are among the most common pollinators. The mature form of the bluebell is nearly unrecognizable from their initial appearance. The small, dark basal leaves that appear in the early Spring resemble more the surrounding leaf litter more than they do the beautiful and soft lush greens of the leaves and pinks and blues of the mature plant.
Part of This Biodiverse Planting
This small woodland flower is familiar to many that call the mid-Atlantic region home and so are part of the modest camp of early annuals aptly titled Spring ephemerals. Being some the first to come, they are also the first to leave. As the trees leaf out and the canopy fills in, or as drier weather sets in, Mertensia virginica will drop their seeds and wait again for the next Winter’s end. Their “ephemeral” status reminds us to plant a variety of species that will provide aesthetic and ecological value through seasonal changes.
Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) prefer the rich soils in moist, undisturbed woodlands and riparian areas, where they appear as colonies in the early Spring when the sun can penetrate the still barren trees to reach the ground. They are becoming increasingly rare to find in their natural habitat, as undisturbed riparian habitats are increasingly more difficult to find due to increase of flooding events, damming, development, etc. Though rare in their natural habitat, they are a fairly common landscaping species and are successful adjuncts to a woodland area or rain garden. They provide early season intrigue and color, and pair nicely with ferns and white trilliums for a native Spring garden.
If Mertensia virginica is an intriguing prospect for your own garden or riparian planting, make sure your site meets their needs. They prefer rich, well-draining soil, they thrive in partial shade, and they need an area that has ample moisture. If you have a spot that meets these conditions, bluebells could be a wonderful addition to your restoration project.