Bluebells (Virginia Cowslip)

Mertensia virginica

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Photo of bluebells, or Virginia cowslip, plants with flowers
Bluebells (Virginia cowslip).
Julianna Schroeder
Family

Boraginaceae (borages)

Description

Fleshy, showy, perennial plants to 2 feet tall, often in large groups. Flowers many, in loose clusters, terminal, hanging like bells, about 1 inch long. Buds pink, turning to light blue on opening. Pink forms are not rare; a white form exists. Blooms March–June. Lower leaves are long, tapering into stems, broad, ovate, to 5 inches long. Stem leaves are smaller, elliptical. All leaves are bluish-green. This is the only Missouri member of the borage family that is not hairy.

Size

Height: to 2 feet.

Bluebells (Virginia Cowslip)

Backyard Bluebells in South St. Louis County
Backyard Bluebells in South St. Louis County
Backyard Bluebells in South St. Louis County
Habitat and conservation

Occurs in bottomland forests, moist upland forests in ravines, swamps, bases and ledges of bluffs, and banks of streams and rivers. Because it is so beautiful and easy to transplant, it has become a target for unethical collectors who sometimes remove entire populations from the wild, leaving only ugly craters under the trees. When you buy native plants from nurseries, make sure they get their stock from cultivated plants, not from the wild.

image of Bluebells Virginia Cowslip Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered statewide, except in the northwestern quarter of Missouri, where it is uncommon or absent.

Human connections

This gorgeous spring wildflower is commonly cultivated in shade gardens. If you are thinking of planting them, please don't take them from the wild. Instead, purchase them from ethical native plant nurseries.

Ecosystem connections

Butterflies are attracted to bluebells, where they gather nectar and pollinate the flowers in the process. Any animals that might eat the foliage have only a brief opportunity to do so, as the aboveground parts of the plant wither and disappear soon after the fruits mature.