It is finally spring in Appalachia, and one of the most beautiful of the early ephemerals is in full bloom. The flowers of the Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) bloom a peculiar color, like the blue of the sky, coalesced and settled to earth next to streams and bottomlands. Patches of bluebells provide welcome color against the brown leaves resting on the forest floor. Sometimes, large swathes of bluebells bloom in the dappled light amongst trees whose leaves have not yet unfurled.
Each bud begins its life a soft pink, gradually turning this lovely soft blue as they age over their three week bloom time. Bluebells particularly love rich, humus soils but are actually quite tolerant, requiring only a neutral pH and moisture.
Along the riparian buffer at the White House Farm, there are exactly thirteen patches of bluebells visible now. The count consists of clumps of five or six stems, modestly tucked in the protection provided by the osage orange and sycamores.
It seems there should be more based on the rich habitat. Driving along Bixler’s Ferry Road, just across the Shenandoah River from the farm, the Bluebells bloom in joyous masses next to tributaries to the Shenandoah, formed from our recent spring rains.
Another thing that makes the bluebells so magical is the short time they are visible. By
June, they will be completely dormant and no sign will remain of their lovely blossoms or the delicate sage green leaves.
Chris Boland with the Shenandoah Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society said it is easy to propagate them. “They are quite forgiving. You can dig them now or wait and collect seeds.”
Sure enough, peering into the spent blossoms of some of the earliest bloomers, four tiny seeds hug each other, drying and maturing, waiting to fall to the soil and hopefully generate into another plant.
I have begun to check the seeds daily, hoping to catch them at the height of maturity but before they have launched into their independent life amongst the leaf litter of the forest floor. To ensure I don’t have to search for the tiny brown seeds with a magnifying glass I even tied little pouches of fine organza around a few of the flower stalks to catch the seeds as they drop. These I can either direct sow in the woods next fall or plant them in my cold frame next winter.
The goal is to naturalize a healthy stand of Bluebells along the “bench’ of the riparian area. We will keep you posted how they do next spring.