There are few plants that scream “Spring is Here!” louder than Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica. A definite fan favorite, this plant is a real treat to see this time of the year; not only because it’s a true beauty, but also because of its ephemeral nature….it won’t be here long!
Spring ephemeral wildflowers are unique because they occupy a very narrow blooming window. This is a time after the soil begins to warm but before the tree canopy fills. Because of this lack of leaf canopy, at least 50% of the sunlight is reaching the forest floor. This percentage will decrease considerably in mid-May as trees and shrubs leaf out.
Other spring ephemerals you may be familiar with include pink lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), and Ohio’s state wildflower, great white trillium (Trillium grandifolium). You have to give these plants credit, as they have figured out a way to fill a niche – when, frankly, it is a hard time to be a plant!
Virginia bluebells grow in partial to full shade and prefer woodlands with moist, rich soils. Large stands of this erect, clump-forming perennial can be found statewide in stream floodplains, touting tubular flowers that begin as pink buds before expanding into blue trumpets. These blooms are extremely showy and are a favorite among bumblebees and other native long-tongued bees, as well as several species of butterflies and moths.
Plants grow up to 2 feet tall and exude a sweet, light fragrance. However, don’t blink, as this species is short-lived in the spring, withering back to dormancy quickly after flowering. After producing seed, plants completely die back to the ground by early summer, going dormant until the following spring.
Unfortunately, Virginia bluebell, along with many other spring ephemeral species face a multitude of threats. Habitat destruction, invasive species encroachment, deer overpopulation, and the uncertainty of a changing climate are just a few of the perils facing these woodland wonders. What actions can we take to ensure future generations are able to enjoy Virginia bluebells and their springtime comrades?
We can start by removing the competition. Invasive plants such as bush honeysuckle, garlic mustard, multiflora rose, and others can quickly outcompete our native spring ephemerals for space and light.
Packing a particularly hard punch are understory invasive shrubs, such as bush honeysuckle. These invasive plants begin leafing out earlier than our native woody woodland species. As a result, spring ephemerals can get shaded out at a time when they require sunlight for growth and reproduction.
For more information on controlling non-native invasive plants in the forest, check out Ohio State University Extension factsheets available on the Ohio Woodland Stewards website.