Bluebells — Mertensia virginica

Virginia bluebells are among our most beautiful spring ephemeral woodland wildflowers. I love the lush green-and-blue carpets that blanket the forest floor in mid-April in southeastern Pennsylvania.

These bluebells, Mertensia virginica in Latin, are members of the borage or forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae). Their electric-blue coloring as well as the elongated, pendulus trumpet shape of their flower look like kindred plants such as borage, viper’s bugloss, comfrey, waterleaf, and more.

Woodland carpet of Virginica bluebells
Woodland carpet of Virginica bluebells (April 15th, 2016)
Bumblebee on Virginia bluebell flowers
Virginia bluebells (April 15th, 2016)

Mertensia virginica flowers are excellent insectaries. When a colony first blooms, it may be one of the year’s first bonanzas for pollinating insects such as the bumblebee drinking the nectar of the flowers pictured above.

While the root of Mertensia virginica is not appetizing to humans — I have tasted it and can attest that it has a strong bitterness to it — the leaves, stems, and blossoms are quite palatable. The blossoms are deliciously sweet raw, much like sweet violets, and make for a delicate and beautiful garnish on a salad. The foliage has a stronger flavor, and is most often cooked steamed. Some report that the flavor is like that of oysters, though this trait is more often associated with Mertensia maritima, a sea-side coastal species within the same genus.

Virginia bluebell blossoms
Virginia bluebell blossoms

After the blossoms erupt in early and mid- April and get pollinated, the petals begin to drop off the calyxes one-by-one, leaving behind the prominent central pistil and the ovary to nurture the young seeds.

Mertensia virginica beginning to form seed
Mertensia virginica beginning to form seed (April 30th, 2016)
Mertensia virginica seed capsules
Mertensia virginica seed capsules (April 30th, 2016)
Unripe seeds of Mertensia virginica
Unripe seeds of Mertensia virginica (April 30th, 2016)

In this picture above we see the unripened seeds of Mertensia virginica. This picture was taken at the end of April, and it was perhaps another week before I began to avidly collect the stems for seed.

Mertensia virginica calyx
Mertensia virginica calyx showing 4 seeds

Here’s a closeup of an ovary showing the four seeds which are typical of each capsule.

Ripening seed of Mertensia virginica
Ripening seed of Mertensia virginica (May 15th, 2016)

By mid-May, some of the seeds have ripened within their capsules, and then they almost immediately fall to the ground. If we wish to gather good amounts of seed, some strategy is required. The technique that was shown me is to gather whole stems of plants as the seeds near drop-off. I lay these stems out, and the juices and nutrients in the foliage finish the job of ripening the seeds, which drop off onto a surface for catchment, such as a table, sheets of cardboard, or other setups you might imagine.

Letting seeds ripen and drop
Letting seeds ripen and drop (May 26th, 2016)
Mertensia virginica seeds
Mertensia virginica seeds

When the seeds are fully ripe, they turn a rich, dark-brown color. The green ones in the bowl pictured here will also turn brown in a short span of time.

Mertensia virginica seedling
Mertensia virginica seedling

I have heard some conflicting information about the viability of bluebell seed after drying. Some say drying destroys a lot of their viability. Others say they are quite tolerant of it. In any case, I air on the side of caution and scatter collected seed as soon as I can, mimicking their life-cycle in the wild. I had no Mertensia seed left by the end of June as all of it was scattered in the wild in locations where spring ephemeral growth was limited or non-existent.

Finding suitable habitat for bluebells is a fun adventure and wonderful excuse for aimless woodland wanderings (a favorite past-time of mine). Fortunately, the bluebells are quite resilient and will grow in a number of places, including under multiflora rose! It is thus an excellent candidate for ecological restoration.

The seedlings pictured above are one- to two-years-old. It will be another 3 or 4 years before these little guys are popping flowers and setting seed of their own. What a joy to watch them grow!