Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
April, 2010
Regional Report

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Ephemeral Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is a favorite native plant from the Eastern coast to the Midwest, from Quebec to Mississippi.

Fleet of Foot - Spring's Ephemerals

We all have "friends" whom we cherish and look forward to seeing. Their visits surprise, delight- and are all too brief. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) springs to the top of my list of perennial "friends."

These lovelies push up quickly through cold March soil. Their purple-blue-green leafy spires unfurl. Suddenly they are lush arching stems dripping with soft blue, bell-like flowers and light lavender-pink buds.

Bluebells reach about two feet wide and tall. They're hardy woodland perennials, preferring shade, neutral pH, and moist soil. I have, however, seen single plants and small clusters also brightening dry, sunny spots. They're likely volunteers from seed scattered maybe by wind, wildlife, or insect? Bluebells are native from Kansas to the East Coast, ranging north to south from Ontario to Mississippi.

Here, Then Gone
Also called Virginia cowslips, they're among spring's ephemerals. Ephemeral derives from the Greek ephemērous, lasting one day.

We enjoy their blue and pink hues for two to three weeks, April into May. Then their foliage turns yellow and disintegrates on the garden soil. No, they're not dying. They go dormant, resting through summer, fall and winter. Next spring, they'll push up again- likely in more spots and larger clusters than you recall. They self -sow and naturalize easily in their preferred conditions. Seedlings can be very carefully moved and transplanted.

Dividing dense clusters is another way to spread the goodness. Dig them up and divide AFTER the flowers are gone but before the plants have gone dormant. It's a good idea to mark their new homes as a reminder not to dig there in a mid-summer or fall flurry of garden work.

Virginia bluebell plants can be difficult to find to buy. I've had good luck at native plant sales, if I arrive early enough. This beauty is highly appreciated and one of the first to disappear from sale tables. I usually buy as many as I see for myself, clients, friends. My motto in this case: You can never have too many Virginia bluebells. A note of caution: make sure the seller can guarantee that the plants you're buying have been nursery-propagated, not dug from the wild.

So, you wonder, what about those empty spots in the garden in June, after the bluebells are gone? I've interplanted my bluebells with ferns, variegated Solomon seal, columbine, Anemone japonica, Geranium maculatum and wood asters, all herbaceous plants that fill in as or after the bluebells go dormant.

More Spring Ephemerals
The mayapple, Jack-in-the pulpit, rue anemone, trillium, spring beauty, American Pasque flower, and dwarf crested iris also take advantage of early, bright spring sunshine to bloom and fruit, then die back above ground. Roots, rhizomes or bulbs continue growing underground.

Other spring ephemeral wildflowers bloom ever so briefly, but their foliage may not disappear. Included in this group are beauties such as bloodroot, violet, yellow trout lily, Dutchman's breeches, Hepatica, blue cohosh, wild ginger and shooting star.

Spring ephemerals grow, bloom, are pollinated and produce seed in about two months. They're able to take full advantage of the intense spring sunlight that penetrates a woodland BEFORE tall trees and shrubs leaf out and block the light.

Hurry... then take a deep breath and a long, admiring look.

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