Thursday, April 1, 2010

LOOK FOR: Bluebells, Clumps of Heaven Here to Ring in Spring

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, being pollinated by a bee
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Does it seem like all of our posts lately include the sentence, "it is a rite of spring for us to look for ___________"? Well, add one more to the list. The bluebells are coming out, and you can bet we'll be looking for them.

And they're not hard to find. In fact, in the right places, they're downright prolific. Bluebells like the bottomlands along streams and rivers. There are many stretches of parkland along the Potomac where they form 14-inch tall blue carpets for a few weeks every April.

But before turning blue, bluebells start out pink. The clusters of flowers don't open all at once, so you'll often see a bunch of puckered-up pink buds mixed in with the blue flowers. The stem arches over and the trumpet-shaped flowers really do hang like a cluster of little bells ready to ring in spring.

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
Photo credit: Dancing Nomad
Even when they're not blooming, the foliage of bluebells can be distinctive. The broad leaves are smooth and light green, almost dusky when they first come up. But by midsummer, you won't even know they're there. The leaves of bluebells will die back by June, leaving their roots charged up and ready to go next spring.
William Cullina says of bluebells: "As best I can determine, Mertensias are not plants at all, but delicate clumps of sky, thinly disguised and sent here for a few weeks each year to bring us earth-bound folks briefly closer to heaven."


In the wild: Look in any of the wooded parks in the flood plain along the Potomac for big patches of bluebells -- including Scotts Run, Turkey Run, McKee Beshers, and some other stretches of the C&O Canal. They were already blooming last Saturday in some south-facing stretches of the Billy Goat C trail around Carderock. There are also some big patches in Rock Creek Park. We'd love to hear about other locations!

In your yard: Bluebells need moist, but well-drained, soil. They do best in deciduous shade -- they need the spring sun, but don't naturally grow in places where they'll get full sun in the summer.

Do you have a favorite spot where you find bluebells? Have questions about them? Leave us a comment!

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica
Bluebells at Scott's Run by the Natural Capital