Home » Plants » Mertensia virginica

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Also known as Virginia cowslip, lungwort oysterleaf, Roanoke bells.

Page contents

Summary

A spring ephemeral native to eastern North America, found in moist deciduous woodlands, especially floodplains.

Range - Expand

LegendColor
Native

This tentative map is based on the FHWA's ERA. This data lacks information on Canada, but also overestimates native ranges, especially around the edges, as this post explains. We have not yet reviewed or fixed this map.

USDA Plants Profile for Mertensia virginica

Illinois Wildflowers Page for Mertensia virginica

Description & Identification

A perennial plant, only present in spring to early summer and dormant the rest of the year. Grows 1-2½ feet tall. Basal leaves are largest, up to 8 inches long and 5 inches wide, and upper leaves on the stem are reduced in size. Leaves are ovate, smooth. Entire plant often has a pale green to slightly bluish or purplish color to the foliage. Stems usually curve at the top, leading to a flower cluster that hangs downward, hence the resemblance to "bells".

Flower buds may cycle through pink and lavender shades, but flowers are usually pale blue at maturity. Rarely plants may be found with white flowers.

Foliage turns yellowish as it dies down.

Root system consists of a deep taproot with spreading rhizomes; roots are fleshy, somewhat fragile, and easily broken or injured.

Similar Plants

Habitat

Found in moist, rich deciduous woodlands in shaded to partly-shaded sites. Plants are often most dominant in somewhat open woodlands in floodplains and other bottomland areas, but in the heart of its range it can also be found on more mesic, upland sites as well. Usually found in well-drained soils rich in organic matter but can tolerate some other soil types.

At the southernmost limit of this species range in Alabama, it is mostly limited to floodplain forests underlain by limestone. At the northern limit of its range, in New York state, it is also limited to floodplains and bottomlands.

Life Cycle

Virginia bluebells is a long-lived perennial spring ephemeral.

Each year, foliage emerges early, before trees leaf out, and usually completely dies down by mid summer. The plant remains dormant during times of hot temperatures and higher competition for light.

Plants usually begin blooming in their second or third year. Plants flower in spring, with flowers lasting about three weeks. Flowers are not self-fertile.

Plants spread both by seed and vegetatively, by rhizomes. Both methods of reproduction are common and important.

Faunal Associations

The flowers are visited by a wide range of pollinators, commonly bumblebees and butterflies, but also other long-tongued bees including honeybees, Anthophorid (digger) bees, and mason bees, as well as skippers, moths, and sometimes hummingbirds.

The foliage is occasionally browsed in small quanitites by white-tailed deer, but is mostly avoided by mammalian herbivores. We were not able to find any records of insect herbivores that eat this plant, only one erroneous record that claimed that the larvae of the moth Gnophaela latipennis (which feeds on other Mertensia species) eats this species, but it does not overlap with this species in range.

Uses

Commonly used in gardens, where it is valued for its showy flowers of an unusual color, its bluish-colored foliage, and its tendency to die down. Its use in gardens is limited by its moisture demands, and it is not suitable for drier sites.

Collection of wild plants for sale in nurseries, or directly by gardeners, has threatened some wild populations. However, planting of this plant has also led to its expansion into a few sites in New England northeast of its native range.

There are twenty other Mertensia species native to North America; however, only one of them overlaps with this species in range. There is a small area at the far north of this species range where it overlaps with a few isolated southern populations of tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata), a more boreal species.

Photo gallery