Eight inch long bright blue-green basal leaves which are longer than the stem leaves (2-4”). Leaves are alternately attached, smooth, round, and toothless.
Family: Borage (Boraginaceae)
Height: To 24” (60 cm)
Flowering: March - June
Habitat: Moist, Shady Areas of Open Edges of Deciduous Woods or Floodplains
Though Virginia Bluebells do grow profusely in some areas of Virginia it is actually a common plant of the Midwest, not the East. The name Bluebell is derived from the shape of the flowers which emerge in clusters as pink buds on the stem. The bud opens to reveal a clear blue, trumpet shaped flower. As the flower ages its coloring deepens. The blossoms put forth a very showy display of pink, blue, and purple-colored flowers all at various stages in growth. White forms of the flower are highly prized because they are rare.
The etymology of the scientific name is more abstract. Virginica means “of Virginia” which refers to the first detailed description made from a specimen collected in Virginia. Mertensia is a species name honoring German botanist Franz Karl Mertens. It is unclear however if Mertens was involved in discovering or collecting Virginia Bluebells. The species name may simply pay tribute to the scientist with no real connection to this particular wildflower.
Gentleman’s Breeches: Refers to the shape and coloring of the flowers, which resemble men’s trousers.
Lungwort, Tree Lungwort: Bluebells were once classified in the same family as Lungworts, which were so named because of their spotted foliage. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, the spotting of the European Lungwort suggested it could cure various lung diseases. Pioneers noticed that Bluebells too had whitish spots on their leaves and could possibly be used for the same purpose. Though Virginia Bluebells proved to be ineffective for treating lung diseases, the name Lungwort has stuck with the wildflower ever since.
Lungwort Oysterleaf: Oysterleaf refers to the taste of the cooked leaf, which some believe resembles the taste of oysters.
Puccoon: A Native American term suggesting that the plant may have been used as a dye.
The tube of each flower contains nectar that can only be reached by certain bees with long proboscises that also pollinate the plant with some difficultly. The drooping flower requires that bees hover in order to reach the nectar. Butterflies, which also act as pollinators, are able to perch on the lip of the flower allowing for easy access to both nectar and pollen. The length of the tube tends to prevent other insects from stealing the nectar without repaying the plant in pollination. Those insects lacking the appendages necessary to reach the nectar will often perforate the top of the tube for easy access.
Virginia Bluebells produce many seeds that are self-sowing and naturalize large areas. They also ensure reproductive success through an underground rhizome system that protects other reproductive structures.
It would seem wrong to damage Virginia Bluebells in search of a different more practical use for the flowers. Perhaps this is why medicinal properties of this wildflower have not been widely explored. For a period of time, Bluebells were used to create a general tonic for improving the health of people who were not feeling well without any specific symptoms. No scientific research exists to support the value of this treatment, suggesting its effect was purely coincidental or placebo.Other uses of this plant by Native Americans or pioneers for medical purposes are not known. Arguably, Virginia Bluebells make a much better garden plant than medical remedy.