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Virginia bluebells are spring ephemeral wildflowers, meaning they grow and bloom in the mid-spring and go dormant by early summer. They’re native to moist woodlands and floodplains at the edges of forests in Eastern North America.
They grow from New York west to Minnesota and south from Arkansas to North Carolina. They’re hardy in zones 3-8. A carpet of Virginia bluebells in full bloom is quite the sight to see on a spring hike. You can bring that beauty to your garden, though.
(Not LITERALLY. Never ever dig up wildflowers, even though it might be tempting to – it’s usually against the law!)
For success with Virginia bluebells the best advice you can follow is to try to replicate their natural habitat. That means full shade to partial shade and moist, humus-rich soil. You can get away with more sun in northern, cooler climates. At the top of their zone (so, zones 7 and 8) plants really need full shade, or at the very most, morning sun, in order to thrive.
You’ll receive Virginia bluebells as bare root plants. They grow from rhizomes, or underground stems. Plant 1-3 inches deep in the spring or the fall. Mulch with composted leaves or finely ground compost. They need consistently moist, but not soggy, soil. Water at the time of planting, and again when you see new growth. Monitor to make sure the soil stays moist during the season after planting.
Plants will bloom in late spring. Pink buds emerge from a cluster of basal foliage (foliage at the bottom of the plant near the ground). Flower stalks grow to heights of up to 2 feet with blooms eventually turning blue upon opening.
As summer approaches, plants turn yellow and eventually die back and go dormant for the summer. If your summer is particularly dry, you will need to occasionally water the area where the plants are planted.
Aside from occasional water, bluebells are amazingly easy to grow. Plants will gradually spread via underground stems, and sometimes via seed. Dig and divide plants in the fall, when fully dormant, or spring if the plants get too large. It’s really best to leave them alone, though, once established.
What do you plant with a so-called spring ephemeral that pulls a disappearing act in the garden halfway through the growing season?
I’d go with late-emerging perennials. Hosta, ferns, leadwort (in cooler areas, as it requires at least morning sun), astilbe, brunnera, and lamium are all late to poke through the soil or will allow the Virginia bluebells to grow up through them in the spring.
Bluebells are also good bedfellows for spring-flowering bulbs and other spring bloomers. If you have the space, establishing a spring garden in an area of your yard is a fun project. Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, Bloodroot, Mayapple, and Jack in the Pulpit all grow well in shade and tend to bow out before the heat of summer.
Virginia bluebells will re-seed throughout the garden, and you can grow them from seed at home, but it can be a difficult process. Bluebells seeds require stratification, or a period of cold, somewhat moist weather in order to germinate. If you want to grow plants from seeds, sow six to eight weeks before the last frost.
Summer-flowering plants get a lot of attention for helping pollinators, but there are also insects active in the earlier part of the season, as long as temperatures are above freezing. Early bloomers are important sources of food for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other insects, and Virginia bluebells are no exception. Because of their long flowers, Virginia bluebells are most often pollinated by hummingbird moths and long-tongued bees.
One of my favorite ways to get new ideas for my garden is to visit public gardens and see what they have growing. There are a few gardens that specialize in native plant displays, which will truly inspire you to return home and go to town planting new plants and color combinations.
Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware has amazing displays of native plants. Spring is probably the garden’s peak season. While you’re in town stop by Winterthur, Longwood, and Chanticleer, all amazing public gardens in the Philadelphia area.
The Lurie Garden in Chicago is actually a rooftop garden, built over a large parking garage in Millennium Park, making it one of the world’s largest green roofs. The garden is divided into several different sections, representing different aspects of Chicago’s natural and cultural history. Bluebells are a prominent feature in the “Dark Plate” area of the garden, which showcases shade plants.
Bowman’s Hill in New Jersey is another public garden with stunning wildflower displays. If you can’t make it out to the woods to search for Virginia bluebells, make a point to stop at a garden during the spring. Any public garden in the Eastern United States is almost guaranteed to have at least one display.
About the Author: Katie is a writer, runner, and reader, living in southern coastal North Carolina. Her favorite garden is her "wild flower patch" where something new is always blooming (or taking over).
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