Plant of the Month: “Bluebells”

George Bernard Shaw maintained that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”.  When it comes to bluebells, he could have added Scotland to his list, since all three countries have different species in mind when referring to “bluebells”. For the English, bluebells are Hyacinthoides non-scripta; for Americans, bluebells are Mertensia virginica; and the Scots call Campanula rotundifolia “bluebells”. All of which serves as a reminder to use the scientific name, rather than the common name, when attempting to purchase a particular plant for your garden. Otherwise, you might be surprised by what you receive.

April is the month for enjoying bluebells in many parts of England or America. Since Scottish “bluebells” don’t begin blooming until May or June, this seems as good a time as April to make bluebells the Plant of the Month, even though we’ll be looking at different species. If you’d like to add bluebells to your garden,  English and American varieties are planted in  the fall, while Campanula varieties are planted in the spring.

Hyacinthoides non-scripta image courtesy of Van Bourgondien

English bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, are a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). They used to be known as Scilla non-scripta, but now the taxonomists have decided to classify the taller Scilla as Hyacinthoides. English bluebells have flower heads that are true blue, nodding, and downward facing; they grow 8″-18″ high, are hardy in U.S. Zones 5-7, and colonize over time. More commonly seen in America is the shorter cousin of English bluebells, Scilla siberica  ( Siberian squill). Squill grows 4″-6″ high, the flower heads are true blue, flat, and upward facing. Squill also colonizes over time. About a month after blooming, all Hyacinthoides plant parts disappear until the following growing season, meaning that the bulbs can be planted in lawns, if desired. They grow well in shade but also tolerate sun.

Mertensia virginica
image courtesy of Missouri Botanic Garden

Mention “bluebell” to an American gardener and that individual will likely think of Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), a forb that is a member of the borage family . Virginia Bluebells are very hardy (to Zone 3), have coarse gray-green leaves and grow up to 24″ tall. Flowers have the true blue color typical of borage family (Boraginaceae) members, and, like the English bluebell, Mertensia flower heads are nodding and downward facing. Also like the English bluebell, about a month after blooming, all plant parts disappear until the following season. Virginia Bluebells colonize by setting seed before going dormant–each fertilized flower produces four seeds. Plant Virginia Bluebells in a shady location in fall, two inches below the soil line, with eyes facing up; space the tubers 10″-12″ apart. Cover with soil and water in.

Campanula rotundifolia image courtesy of Prairie Nursery

Campanulas are a large group of blue or white perennials that comprise their own family, Campanulaceae. It’s not surprising that the Scots would call Campanula rotundifolia “bluebells”, since the common name for Campanulaceae is Bellflower, and the common name for the rotundifolia variety is Harebell. Scottish bluebells are not the true blue color of English bluebells or Virginia Bluebells, although breeders have produced some true blue Campanula varieties, such as Campanula carpatica ‘Blue Clips’. Harebells, like Virginia Bluebells, are very hardy (Zone 3). They can be grown in full sun or partial shade, grow 12″-24″ high, tolerate dry soil, but prefer good drainage. Plants should be spaced 6″ apart.

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