by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) by Lynn Weaver, The McLean Contributionship Endowed Education Intern

Now is the time for the so-called “spring ephemerals”: wildflowers that bloom only briefly in early spring, going dormant when the deciduous forests leaf out and diminish their access to sunlight.

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) is one of the showiest of these spring-flowering ephemerals. With so little time to produce seeds, M. virginica has evolved two interesting adaptations to improve the efficiency of the process: 1) A pH change causes the pink buds to become blue flowers, blue being more attractive to the long-tongued bees that pollinate them. 2) After a flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, so that pollinators can specifically visit only flowers that still need pollination. When left undisturbed by man, reproduction is quite successful. Mertensia honors Franz Carl Mertens (1764-1831), a German theology and language major, who studied botany in his spare time and took scientific expeditions throughout Europe with German botanist Albrecht Roth, who created the genus name Mertensia to honor his friend. Virginica literally means of/from Virginia. “Virginia” in botanical names does not just mean the State of Virginia as we know it today; Virginia originally referred to a large swathe of territory in the New World. Mertensia virginica is native to many eastern and midwestern states, including Pennsylvania.

The common name bluebells is somewhat of a misnomer. Look carefully and you will see that the flowers are shaped like trumpets rather than like bells; however, the alliteration in the word bluebells makes it a much catchier name than “bluetrumpets” would have been! Thomas Jefferson grew these as yet unnamed flowers at Monticello, describing them in his 1766 garden diary using triple alliteration—“funnel-formed flower.”

In 1929, Elizabeth Britton, a founding member of the now-defunct Wildflower Preservation Society of America, considered VA bluebells “one of the most beautiful members of the Borage Family.” She called for the protection of Mertensia virginica because plants from the wild were being sold commercially. Today, nursery-grown seeds, root stock, or potted plants are available for sale, but VA bluebells are at some conservation risk due to habitat loss. These perennials enjoy moist, shady woodland areas where they can naturalize, spreading both by underground rhizomes and by self-sowing.

Photo by Daderot (CC0 1.0)

Common names can be very misleading, e.g.Virginia bluebells are quite different from Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which also bloom in the spring. The VA bluebells at the Morris Arboretum grow by Out on a Limb, a tree canopy walk that is 50 feet above the ground—a fun and informative adventure for both adults and children. Come to the Morris Arboretum soon to enjoy all of the flowering trees, shrubs, spring ephemerals, and garden features.

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at