Virginia Bluebell

Mertensia virginica. Unlike so many of the spring forest flowers, Virginia Bluebells have not made a name for themselves as a “practical” plant: They are not edible, and they have little if any history as an American Indian or colonial medicine, flavoring, dye, or other useful herb. Instead, these flowers of rich, moist woods are known chiefly for their beauty.  Virginia Bluebells are, in fact, unusually hardy and disease resistant, able to form large colonies of perennial plants with bright blue flowers opening from pink buds. These characteristics have made the species one of the few native spring wildflowers that are popular with gardeners both here and in Europe. Butterfly gardeners are especially fond of the plant because butterflies are the flowers’ chief pollinators; the bell-shaped flowers seem shaped by evolution to provide an ideal perch for butterflies while they are drinking the nectar.  A flower so colorful and widespread is bound to gain many folk names, and Mertensia virginica has been known as Bunchflower, Gentleman’s Breeches, and Old-Ladies’ Bonnets. It’s one of more than 30 Mertensia species in North America, and yet it is named for Franz Karl Mertens (1764-1831), a German botanist who specialized in plants of his native land.

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