There’s no doubt that Spring has sprung in Clarke County and the signs are everywhere!
Commuters crossing the Shenandoah River bridge on Route 7 may not be able to spot Spring robins from their cars to but most have surely noticed the beautiful weeping cherry tree in full blossom a few weeks ago at the east end of the bridge each spring. And how about the patches of yellow and white daffodils that VDOT has planted in our Virginia highway medians?
A less flamboyant, but no less beautiful, harbinger of spring in Clarke County is the Virginia Bluebell. But you won’t spot this delicate wildflower from your vehicle while speeding down Route 7. But a slight detour onto the quiet back roads that follow the county’s river and streams will quickly reveal the Bluebell’s delicate leaves and blossoms on the shady banks.
The Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) also known as Virginia Cowslip, Lungwort Oysterleaf and Roanoke Bells, is a spring plant with classic bell-shaped sky-blue flowers that burst forth from pink buds. Although Virginia has proudly attached its name to the plant, it is native to moist woodlands throughout eastern North America.
Bluebell leaves are lush and full with a velvety-like surface. The plant stalk can grow to nearly 2 feet high with the plants forming a thick green and blue blanket in large patches.
The flowers form with five petals forming a long, bell-like tube in mid-spring. The buds are tinged with pink changing to sky-blue as they open. White flowers sometimes occur.
The bluebells stamen and pistil are spaced too far apart for self-fertilization and the flower’s favorite pollinator is the butterfly whaich can gently perch on the edges of the flower and sip the nectar found there. Bumblebees also help in the Bluebell’s reproduction cycle, however, the bumblebee’s large body is too wide to enter the Bluebell’s narrow funnel shaped flower so the bumblebees must hover while they work.
By early summer, each fertilized Bluebell flower will produce four seeds within wrinkled nut pods. Once the seeds are dispersed the plant takes a long nap and is dormant until the following spring.
Bluebells are hardy to hardiness zone3, about -40 °F, so Clarke County winters offer hardly a notice to the streamside resident. Nor does the Bluebell fear the Shenandoah River’s raging flood waters that rise and scour its banks every few years. Once the flood waters reside and the snows melt away the Virginia Bluebell always returns.
A great place to see Bluebells in Clarke County is anywhere along the Shenandoah River. Take either of the county’s river roads and look in the shady areas. Head north on Route 603 from Route 7 (at the western end of the bridge) and drive a quarter of a mile. Both sides of the road are carpeted with blue flowers.