Writing in 1910, Gertrude Jekyll called Virginia bluebells “the very embodiment of the freshness of early spring.” (Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden)
I first saw our native Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) massed on the banks of a ravine—a breathtaking sight that’s every bit as sumptuous as the famed bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) woods of England. These self-seeding perennials grow 30 to 50 centimetres tall, and in spring produce cymes of pink buds opening to 2.5-centimetre-long bright blue flowers that are pollinated by butterflies and bumblebees.
A spring ephemeral, after blooming and setting seed, the plants go dormant in midsummer and their grey-green foliage disappears. Best in a woodland setting with dappled shade, fill in bare spaces with annuals or interplant your bluebells with other perennials, such as ferns, hostas and yellow wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum).
Virginia bluebells were first sent to Europe by English clergyman John Banister (1654-1692) who also introduced many of our native trees, including balsam fir, honeylocust and scarlet oak. Later, the genus was named in honour of Franz Carl Mertens (1764-1831), a German botanist who was chiefly interested in algae.
Juglone tolerant and rabbit resistant, Virginia bluebells prefer moist, humus-rich soil, and given these conditions, small clumps will slowly spread (you can never have too many).