Virginia bluebells vs Spanish bluebells?

growitnowMay 6, 2013

Hi, Ive decided to plant Virginia bluebells for the first time but I dont know much about them, including when and how to plant, and whether they are a better / worse choice than Spanish bluebells.

I would be grateful for some any counsel.

When & where to get?
When & how to plant?
Are they generally considered reliable and 'easy'?

zone 7 , Virginia

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Virginia bluebells (mertensia virginica) are reliable, easy and beautiful. They spread easily and you'll be finding them in places you never expected. However, they are ephemeral and will disappear quickly.
Leaves emerge purple and soon change to a silky, soft blue-grey colour and the flowers open from pink buds into sprays of blue bell-shaped flowers the colour of the sky. Soon after blooming, the entire plant will disappear until the following spring. They are great companions for later emerging plants like hostas and ferns. One of my favourite flowers of the spring; they also combine well with hellebores, trilliums, arum italicum and bloodroot.
I don't know what Spanish bluebells are and cannot comment on them. But I have a vague memory of a bulb with that name.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 9:25AM
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mrsgalihad(5 CO)

Spanish Bluebell is a hyacinth like flower. They are nice too but the Virginia Bluebell is a more true blue where the Spanish is purple. If I had to choose between the two I'd pick the VIrginia both because it is a native and because of the color.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 10:09AM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

Spanish bluebells are a very aggressively spreading bulb.

Virginia bluebells are a woodland perennial wildflower.

Spanish bluebells form thick clumps and their foliage can smother other plants as it dies back in a slimy mess.

They seed all over including into the crowns of more desirable plants and are a real PITA to dig out. I've been fighting them twenty years and never planted them in the first place.

They do have pretty bluish flowers for a couple of weeks....I would not advise anyone to plant them.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 11:13AM
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Campanula UK Z8

cripes yes, avoid Spanish bluebells(hyacinthoides hispanica) - a nasty aggressive plant - we have an especial apathy towards them since they have hybridised with our native bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), taking all the good attributes of the english bluebell -grace, fragrance, mannerliness and evocative, to lumber us with a rampant weed, with dull flowers and rank foliage.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 2:42PM
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Thanks this is VERY helpful :)

Any suggestions for Virignia bluebells --

WHERE to buy?
WHEN to plant?

Thanks again,

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 2:44PM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

You guys are making me nervous! I planted some Spanish bluebells about five years ago and they haven't moved from the spot I planted them, and I enjoy them every year. But now I'm wondering if I should look out....


    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 3:52PM
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aachenelf z5 Mpls

You should be able to find VB in garden centers now. Or you could wait until fall and order them online. They shouldn't be hard to find.

I love mine and yes, they do reseed all over the place, but make sure you don't make them the focal point of any bed. They are gorgeous in bloom, but the flowers don't last all that long and when they start to go dormant, they are very, very ugly. Make sure you have other plants nearby to take ones attention away from the yellowing foliage.


    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 4:23PM
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marquest(z5 PA)

I don't know Dee. I think some of these bells are a confusing bunch and from so many different descriptions I have read from so many different sites, area some one may live you hear different performance.

I have one of the bluebells in my garden that was here when I purchased the property and I am sure they have been here probably 50 years ago and they are not taking over. I have no idea which bell it is. All I know is what is aggressive and people have told me is a horrible thug in a zone 8 will cling to life in my zone 5/6.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 4:42PM
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Funny, I have what I assume is one Virginia bluebell that came with my house, that has never ever spread. I finally divided it a couple years ago, because I wanted more! I don't know if it being in complete shade has affected the self-sowing (or lack thereof).

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 4:55PM
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terrene(5b MA)

I love both of them. I have Va bluebells that were started from seed 3 years ago that are finally blooming this year! Exciting! You can buy them online, although if they seem too cheap they might be dug from the wild.

And Spanish Bluebells will reseed but I don't find them super aggressive. In fact if you have a vole invade your garden, these bulbs will quickly disappear! I had gorgeous big clumps in the front garden that were wiped out by the voles 2 years ago. Finally the smaller clumps that I transplanted back in are putting on some size.

I think they are both beautiful when they bloom, and wouldn't be without either one. Although Mertensia virginica is simply heavenly in bloom and probably my favorite early blooming perennial.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 9:27PM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

I wanted to add that while my Spanish bluebells haven't moved from the spot they started out in, they are very reliable - I can always count on them to return and bloom beautifully.

My Virginia bluebells, on the other hand, are not totally reliable in coming back. They seem to be weaker in terms of hardiness and returning and vigor, and the show seems to actually be getting smaller instead of bigger, although I was pleased to see a few new (little) plants around the garden this year.

If there is even a hint of aggressiveness (from ANY source, not just my experience) I won't recommend a plant to someone, because that is a terrible situation to have and I don't want to put anyone in that situation, but I did want to share MY experience with bluebells to help if possible. And that being said, I will now be keeping any eye on the Spanish bells to make sure they behave!


    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 11:03PM
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Ispahan Zone6a Chicago

Mertensia virginica is absolutely hands down the better of the two plants. I grow both.

I grow the supposedly larger-than-normal form of Spanish bluebells called 'Excelsior'. When in bloom, it can be very pretty, but it is generally quite coarse looking and a rank grower. Color is more purple than blue and they have none of the charm or fragrance of true hyacinths (especially the multi flowered Festival hyacinths) that are their closest garden lookalikes. In my loose sandy soil, I find the bulbs are easy to dig up and remove, so I am gradually getting rid of them and replacing with plants I think are more attractive, such as different color forms of Primula sieboldii, Geranium maculatum and Phlox divaricata.

Virginia bluebells, when settled in and well grown, can be truly spectacular in their season, much more so than you would imagine from seeing them in photos. In my opinion, it is one of the aristocrats among native wildflowers and gives a crowd pleasing show when planted with Stylophorum diphyllum and Trillium grandiflorum. Yes, the foliage can look yellow and unattractive while going dormant for the season, but it is not a prolonged, agonizing, slimy death like the Spanish bluebells. In fact, I find the foliage "melts away" with rain.

This post was edited by ispahan on Mon, May 6, 13 at 23:12

    Bookmark   May 6, 2013 at 11:10PM
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Campanula UK Z8

well diggerdee - try to move your SB clump and you will find a million little white bulblets. Nope, your clump will not move around or even grow massively......but you will never be rid of them if you ever change your mind. That is what I mean by aggressive - they just refuse to fade away but return again....and again and again.....FOREVER

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 7:34AM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

Campanula, I am HONESTLY not trying to start an argument. I am just very surprised by the descriptions of aggressiveness, and don't understand as, like I said, my Spanish bluebells have not budged an inch in five years or more. The clumps have not even really gotten much bigger in that time. I am truly overly-worried about planting anything aggressive. I have been fighting things such as poison ivy, garlic mustard, sheep's sorrel, sassafras, wild raspberry, bittersweet, virginia creeper, and wild rose in my yard for over 15 years (I'm not even counting the stuff in the lawn that I DON'T bother to battle - violets, wild strawberry, Canadian mayapple, wild plantain, haircap moss, bluets, not to mention the always popular dandelions!) Even the native goldenrod, which I absolutely love, pops up where it's really not convenient and I spend lots of time digging and moving it. I therefore would never knowingly plant anything remotely aggressive. So now I'm a bit concerned about the Spanish bluebells.

But - and again, not trying to argue - but wouldn't your description - "your clump will not move around or even grow massively...they just refuse to fade away but return again....and again and again....." be exactly something one would WANT in a garden plant?


    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 9:14AM
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terrene(5b MA)

Hiacynthoides hispanica is not on my list of non-native plants that I worry about being invasive or even aggressive. Although there are plenty of others I'm battling, mostly woody plants.

Here's one of my fave pics of H. hispanica. I took this years ago and am bummed because this was one of the clumps the voles ate -

One of the M. virginica seedlings that bloomed this year for the first time -

This post was edited by terrene on Tue, May 7, 13 at 11:29

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 11:28AM
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Campanula UK Z8

Oh Digger - I am not wanting to be contentious either but, I have already explained that spanish bluebells come with unwelcome baggage in the UK - a bit like the grey squirrel thugging out our nervous little native red squirrel......and the english bluebells have the most extraordinary fragrance and luminous blue colouring - both lacking in spanish bluebells. And, probably invasive is the wrong term but, if you did change your mind and try to remove the spanish interlopers, that's when the problems start.
As for coming back forever, well OK if you love the plant....but a misery if you decide that it is one you would rather consign to the compost heap

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 4:56PM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

Campanula, do you have any photos of your English bluebells? You got me wondering about them, and a google search gave me several articles (bemoaning, as you mentioned, the crossing with the Spanish ones) but the photos are all different (as the photos of anything one searches on google always seem to be!)

But the funny thing is, I have one little plant out on my slope by the street, which I never planted, and which appeared about three years ago. I thought at first it was a Spanish bluebell, but it's not. Then I thought it was one of the minor bulbs I plant (scilla, etc.) but it's not that either. Now, in looking at the images for English bluebells, some of the images look just like the plant out on my slope!

I have no idea where an English bluebell would have come from to plant itself in my front yard, but now I'm curious. I haven't seen this little plant yet, so I am going to see if its out there.

I do wish image searches were more reliable...


    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 5:34PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

I have Virginia Bluebells in my wooded yard that I purchased less than two years ago. There is one plant in the front bed by the entry to the house, and 20-30 more plants growing wild out back in my unkempt wood. Here in Michigan I believe Virginia Bluebells are a protected wildflower that is not supposed to be picked or moved. I know my mother has had one in the back of her property that we've watched for every spring for 20-plus years. That one plant has returned each spring, but has not spread or multiplied. I feel quite lucky to have so many of them on my property. I may try to collect a few seeds and see if I can't get a few more to grow in the front of my yard. Good luck in your choices.


    Bookmark   May 9, 2013 at 9:41PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

diggerdee - if you could post a picture of your mystery bluebell either Campanula or I could tell you if it is the genuine article. This one was taken in my wood. Sorry it's poor quality. The photo is a few years old.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 9:11AM
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Our woods are filled with Virginia Bluebells right now and in waves they are just breath-taking. They are blooming along with the Dutchman's Britches and Buttercups. Quite a show.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 2:46PM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

I checked and the mystery bluebell is indeed out on the slope by the street. I will see if I can get a photo tomorrow - I'm sitting here with two broken cameras! I'll use DH's phone tomorrow, if the bluebell didn't get decimated by the rain.

Speaking of photos, RyseRyse do you have any of your blooming woodlands? Sounds lovely!


    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 3:56PM
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I'm not a great picture taker and have never tried to post one but will take my phone out there the next sunny day and see what I can do.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 4:48PM
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marquest(z5 PA)

Flora the leaves in your pic look like my plant. What is the name of your plant?

They were here when I purchased the house. They are in a good spot by the driveway so they do not bother anything. Driveway beds usually need a thug or two.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2013 at 8:36PM
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kimpa(z6b PA)

I read that they need another virginia bluebell plant close by to make viable seeds and spread. So those that have only one plant may not see them multiply.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 7:36AM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

Here are some photos I just took in my yard of Spanish Bluebells and why I consider them aggressive weeds.

Please note that I never planted them, they have spread by seeding and I've been digging them out twenty years....all these beds were lawn when we bought the house but there were some Spanish Bluebells in the neighbor's yard and on the side of the house by a big Hydrangea that seeded....Yes, I know I've got other weeds too ;)

They grow up into the crowns of other plants and are very hard to dig out. They just finished blooming so they aren't as easy to see in the photos. They'll turn yellow in a couple of weeks and get very slimy and attract slugs like crazy too.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 12:10PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

There are a few daffodils in these pics but almost all the bulb foliage is the bluebells...

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 12:12PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

So not my favorite plant

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 12:14PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

But the tiny bulblets are impossible...

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 12:16PM
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marquest(z5 PA)

Why do you let them turn yellow and slimy?

In my beds above I have roses, ornamental small bushes and daylilies. When the BB are done blooming they are cut down. I also have a lot of daffodils, tulips and other Spring bulbs.

The daylily, roses and ornamental shrubs take their place and the beds are mulched at that time. It is the beginning of my Summer clean up for the Summer flowering plant show.

I cannot cut the other spring bulb leaves but the BB do not need their leaves. Cut them down do some weeding, put down some much and you end your slimy ugly mess.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 7:00PM
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buyorsell888(Zone 8 Portland OR)

Sometimes the weather does not cooperate here and they get slimy before I get a chance to pull them. I try not to even let them bloom and possibly seed. I want them completely gone but they are winning the war...

    Bookmark   May 11, 2013 at 8:27PM
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