The Virginia Bluebell


The Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) is one of the most sought-after wildflower species native to Missouri. With annual events dedicated to viewing their arrival, these showy, herbaceous perennials are sure to please its viewers. In mid-April I had the opportunity to attend a guided tour of the Shaw Nature Reserve bottomland flood plains, home to an overwhelming quantity of bluebell flowers. Join me on the next installment of my Missouri Native Species Collection to learn more about the Virginia bluebell.

Characteristics of the Virginia Bluebell

BINOMIAL NAME: Mertensia virginica

Family: Boraginaceae (borage, forget-me-not)

The Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) is an alluring species native to Missouri. Growing in heights of 1-2 feet tall, this showy perennial towers high above surrounding flora, displaying brilliant clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers ranging in colors from deep purple to sky blue, and even white. Virginia bluebell buds are typically initially pink, but change to deeper hues of blues as it matures. White variations are less common.

Mertensia is a genus comprised of approximately fifty species of plants in the Boraginaceae family. Boraginaceae plants are frequently hairy however, the Virginia bluebell is one of the few non-hairy family members. A family known for color changes, Boraginaceae plants will often exhibit color variations.

Mertensia virginica blooms annually from March through June, generally within a three week period.

Bottomland Forest and Dense Ground Cover

Mertensia virginica thrives in the rich, bottomland forest soils cultivated by repetitive flooding. The flood plain of Shaw Nature Reserve is ever-changing; as the Meramec river ebbs and flows, so does the surrounding landscape. The Virginia bluebell is considered threatened due to habitat destruction and the prevention of natural river flooding.

The leaves of the Virginia bluebell mature in hues of deep purple to grayish-green. Growing in a thick petiolate formation towards the base of the plant and becoming sessile towards the top, the bluebell leaf-count is massive, providing ample ground cover.

The Virginia bluebell prefers shaded areas and is perfectly suited to dense, bottomland forests.

Flower Shape and Common Pollinators

Bluebell flowers grow in large, terminal clusters. Flowers are long and trumpet-shaped, growing up to one inch in length. The flowers dangle downwards, resembling bells.

Because the stamen and stigma of the Virginia bluebell are placed further apart, this is not a self-pollinating plant. The Virginia bluebell must rely on visiting pollinators to spread, primarily the butterfly. Though the bumblebee will visit the bluebell, due to the downward-pointing opening of the flower, the heavier bumblebee will sometimes find the bluebell more difficult to land upon and must continually hover.

Lighter pollinators, like butterflies, are able to land on the flower and utilize their proboscis to extract the bluebell’s nectar. Other visitors include bee flies, skippers, hummingbird moths, and even hummingbirds!

Five stamens surround the long and slender central pistil.

The images above show how initially pink flower buds mature to a softer, sky blue hue.

The pink flowers on this plant indicate that it has recently bloomed, and will mature into a lighter shade of blue.

Many flowers have already fallen off of this rarer, white bluebell plant. Exposed are the slender, central pistil.

Annual Guided Tours

The Virginia bluebell emerge annually in the Spring to offer viewers an immersive, spectacular display of color. If you would like the opportunity to embark on a guided tour to view the bluebells, be sure to mark your calendar for April 2022. The Missouri Botanical garden offers the “Bluebells Abound!” tour annually at Shaw Nature Reserve. Beginning at the Maritz House Trail, the 2 mile hike to the bottomlands is on hilly, rocky terrain. I would advise bringing a walking pole and sturdy hiking shoes for extra stability. The trail is steep in some areas, but your efforts will be rewarded with a sea of beautiful, vibrant bluebells.

Sources: Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Botanical Garden, United States Department of Agriculture.

Technical: Canon 5D mk4 + 100mm f/2.8L, Fujifilm x100V