Blooming Bluebells

This showy spring ephemeral is a sought-after sight for wildflower fans

|  Story by Cindy Cain  |

After surviving the long, cold winter and its barren landscape, one of the biggest treats for plant enthusiasts is the emergence of Virginia bluebells in early spring.

This showy ephemeral is a sought-after sight for wildflower fans who can’t wait to walk in woodlands carpeted in color.

“When the bluebells bloom, they cover the whole forest floor,” said Suzy Lyttle, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. “It is like something right out of a magical Disney film or ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie with the field of poppies. You just see blues, purples and pinks as far as the eye can see. It’s just breathtaking.”

Virginia bluebells grow in great profusion on the rich, moist, bottomland soils of Messenger Woods Nature Preserve and McKinley Woods – Frederick’s Grove. Flowers are borne in loose, nodding clusters, with pink buds that open into trumpet or bell-shaped, light blue flowers.

Photo courtesy of Jim Kloss

Growing to a height of 1 to 2 feet, the pale fleshy stems and large floppy leaves are weak and watery, and quickly die back to the ground after blooming. Virginia bluebells are native to Illinois where they grow in most counties. The flowers bloom from March to May, depending on the weather, and they last for about three weeks.

The springtime flowers are worth the long winter wait, she added.

“It taps into our senses,” Lyttle said of the bluebell emergence. “Not only does it look beautiful, it has a sweet smell that fills the area. You will also hear buzzing from flower to flower. The fuzzy bumblebees love bluebells. And no worries, the bees want nothing to do with you because they are too busy filling up their bellies with delicious nectar and bringing pollen back home.”

According to the University of Illinois Extension, Virginia bluebells spread by self-seeding and by underground rhizomes; the plants go dormant in summer.

But while they’re in bloom in spring, bluebells attract a wide audience because they are approachable, Lyttle said. “They are tall, pretty and colorful. They don’t have horns, and they are not poisonous.”

Photo by Cindy Cain

And compared to other spring wildflowers, bluebells are not difficult to spot and hang around longer than other ephemerals.

“A lot of the other flowers are pretty, but they tend to be small and easy to miss,” Lyttle explained. “Others may only bloom for a day or two, like bloodroot.”


So what’s best part about Virginia bluebells?


“You can plant them in your yard,” Lyttle said. “Seek out a native plant sale and find a shady wet area.”

If you purchase Virginia bluebells for your own yard, follow this advice from the extension service: “The best planting spots recreate a woodland setting. Add leaf compost to the soil before planting and mulch with shredded bark and leaves after planting. Additional fertilizers are not necessary.”


Lead image courtesy of Jim Kloss

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