How to Grow Virginia Bluebells (Cowslips)

Virginia bluebells (Roanoke bells) are gorgeous perennials know for their bell-shaped flowers.

The plant has its own signature downcast, bell-shaped blooms.

Sadly, only specific environments can grow bluebells natively since they need shade and a period of cold stratification.

But if you can provide the same or similar environment in your backyard, you can enjoy those cowbell blooms! Even if you’re not on the east coast, you still may be able to enjoy them if you give them the right growing conditions.

And that’s why you’re here, right?

You’ll find that bluebells are extremely easy to grow plant and require little to no maintenance- seriously.

They’re perfect for beginners and people looking to add “cool” plants to their yard without spending all day taking care of it.

These are seriously pretty but seriously underdogs of the flowering perennials world.

Let’s dive in and learn how to grow and care for Virginia bluebells.

Quick care guide: Virginia bluebells

Plant type Perennial
Origin North America
Scientific name Mertensia virginica
Other names Virginia cowslip, eastern bluebells, oysterleaf
Soil type Well-draining
Soil pH 7 (neutral)
Sunlight requirement Full shade, partial sun
Bloom season Spring
Colors Purple, pink, green, white, blue, gray
Max height 3 feet
Max width 2 feet
Low temperature -10F
High temperature 60F
Ideal temperature range 50-60F
Humidity Low
Watering requirements Low (1 inch per week)
Fertilizer requirements None
Fertilizer NPK 10-10-10
Days until germination 60 days
Days until bloom Many years from seed
Speed of growth Moderate
Hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Plant depth 1-3 inches (from seed), 2-3 times the diameter root ball (from rhizome)
Plant spacing 10-18 inches
Propagation Rhizome, seeds, transplant
Common pests Little to none
Common diseases Root rot, bulb rot, powdery mildew
Indoor plant No
Outdoor plant Yes
Grown in container Yes
Flowering plant Yes
Beginner friendly Yes
Care level Low (easy)
Uses Decoration, color, centerpiece, pathing, bordering, background plant, foreground plant, companion plant

What’s a bluebell?

Woodland bluebells growing.
They grow naturally in woody areas.

A Virginia bluebell, also known as Mertensia virginica, Virginia cowslip, or Roanoke bell, is a unique bell-shaped flower that’s much loved in the US because of its novelty.

They’re easy to grow and love the shade while giving your garden a nice makeover that catches the eye. These plants don’t ask for much but have a lot to offer.

Growing them in their native area (east coast of the US) is super easy to get some unique flowers in the spring. They can be found growing in floodplains and woodlands along with Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, Georgia up to Ontario!

They thrive in shady areas that are woody and can help add some coverage to borders, flower beds, or woodlands.

Let’s find out how to grow and care for these gorgeous little chiming bells.

Are bluebells poisonous to humans?

Bluebells are considered to be toxic to humans, horses, dogs, and other animals. There seems to be contradicting articles online about the toxicity of cowslips, but you should be safe than sorry.

The plant has toxic glycosides that make it dangerous to ingest or touch. If you work with bluebells (such as pruning), you need to wear all proper PPE to protect yourself.

The plant stem, petals, flowers, and all other parts should be considered toxic.

Protect yourself by taking precautions. Avoid planting near other plants that you commonly work with or eat.

How to propagate Virginia bluebell bulbs

Propagating Virginia bluebells is easy.

You can do it by division, transplant, or from seed. If you’re inexperienced or it’s your first time growing these plants, you may opt for transplant or division since it’s a lot easier.

Starting from seed will take a long time and newbies may get discouraged or impatient. But it is more rewarding though.

Whatever you choose, you’ll learn to appreciate the awesome blooms they produce for you all season.

Growing from seed

The seeds can be harvested from established bluebells in the summertime before they go dormant in the winter. You can also buy seeds in a packet as expected.

Seeds will take a very long time to bloom (like many years), this is why I suggest starting from a transplant.

Germination also takes a long time and needs a period of cold stratification. This is where you expose the seeds to cold temperature to simulate the cold exposure it’d naturally get in the wild.

The seeds will also be stubborn and may not sprout, as it does have a low germination rate.

Start by cold stratifying your seeds. You can mix equal parts vermiculite and sterile substrate. Put the seeds inside and cover them with a humidity dome.

Starter trays often come with a piece of plastic you can use to do this. Put the tray in the fridge and keep it at 33F for 60 days.

Yes, this will be a hassle.

But it’s what it takes to grow bluebells from seed. Told you it ain’t that easy!

When 2 months have passed, put the seeds in a warmer environment at room temperature. You can just take them out of the fridge and leave them alone for another 60 days.

The soil should be watered, but only a list misting to be kept wet.

When they germinate, it’s time to move them outside. You can plant them directly in the soil or plant them in pots. Choose a location that’s shady and cool.

Avoid direct sunlight because this will damage your bluebells.

If you have seeds in hand and you live in a hardy zone that can natively propagate Virginia bluebells, sow the seeds outdoors in the late fall just before winter.

Get your soil ready by adding some rich organic compost and moisten it. They’ll show themselves in the right conditions and you can avoid the whole fridge thing.

Make sure the temperature is right with no signs of hot weather forecasted. Then sow the seeds on the surface. No need to cover them.

Bluebells naturally drop their seeds on the surface and propagate themselves.

From division

Planting from cuttings, or division is also possible but will require that you have access to some established bluebells first.

The best time to start diving your bluebells is in the late summer to early autumn.

First, get a pair of sterile pruners and a garden shovel.

Dig up the soil around the one you want to use for propagation.

You mustn’t damage the root system when you dig because it can screw up the nutrient intake.

When you completely get the soil out of the way, carefully pull the plant from the substrate. Use the sterile pruners to cut the rhizome into pieces.

You can get 2-3 rhizomes from a large one. Just make sure each piece has a rhizome, root, and a node. The rhizomes will then need to be placed into newspaper or soil in a dark room.

Let them sit and dry out for a few days before you transplant them.

After they’re dried up, check for signs of mold or fungus. If everything’s good, they’re ready to plant. Put them into the soil and give them good watering.

Plant them as deep as the previous bluebell you divided and space them accordingly.

Note that bluebells prefer NOT to be disturbed and cut up for division. Doing so may damage the plant. So you should only do this with bluebells that you’re willing to risk.

From transplant

If you bought your bluebells from the nursery, you can transplant them into your garden in the spring.

This gives them plenty of time to develop strong roots for the winter dormancy.

Avoid planting later in the season because this can kill younger bluebell plants if it’s too cold in your zone. Early fall is the latest you should plant before winter dormancy. Expect flowers next spring.

When transferring it to the soil, use a rich soil amended with compost. The soil depth should be twice the size of the root ball and space each plant at least 10” apart.

The crown should NOT be placed under the soil. It needs to be planted at the soil level with a loose backfill of soil. Water generously the first time, then transition to regular watering.

How to plant and care for Virginia bluebells

Scottish bluebells.
These plants require little work to care for.

This section covers general care guidelines for bluebell care.

While the “rules” vary depending on your hardiness zone, cultivar, and local environment, they should be largely the same.

Hardiness zone

Bluebells love the shade and will tolerate temperatures in USDA hardiness zones 3-8.

Their bloom season is, however, quite short. Most Virginia bluebells will only bloom for about 25 days around peak summer (March and April.

The rest of the time, the large green spinach-like leaves will take place.

Soil type, pH, and more

As with most flowering plants, bluebells need rich, well-draining soil.

Amend with compost for additional nutrients.

If you’re using loamy soil, you can leave it as is without any additional compost. The soil pH should be neutral if you want blue or purple flowers.

If you increase the pH, it’ll change the petal colors.

They naturally grow in forests and plains where they’re shaded by other foliage. They’re protected from sunlight and thrive where they can get cool shade.

If you use generic soil, it should be OK as they’re tolerant of different conditions. Just make sure it’s moist at all times and well-draining. Add some compost for extra nutrients.

You can use leaf litter or store-bought ones.

If your soil is rich enough, avoid adding anything.

Plant spacing

Space each bluebell at least 10 inches apart to minimize soil competition.

Even though this feels like a lot of space, they’ll grow and cover up any gaps between each plant.

In the wild, they grow about 10 to 18 inches apart so you can replicate this in your garden. Each plant grows upright with pendulous clusters of flowers.

Expect your stalks grow about 2 feet at max and the flowers come from basal leaves.

What month do you plant bluebells?

Plant bluebells in the spring or fall.

This gives them enough time to build a root system for the winter dormancy.

If you’re growing from seed, start indoors and cold stratify it.

If you’re transplanting, this is the best time to do so.

Dividing from the rhizome is stressful to the plant especially if you move it to a new location.

Avoid doing so when winter is coming so it has time to develop some strong roots or else you can seriously harm new plants.


Bluebells like moist soil and don’t like dry soil.

Avoid letting it go dry between waterings.

Keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged at all times throughout the spring.

Add more water if necessary in the summertime.

Account for rainwater, as this contributes water on its own. Reduce watering when the plants flower and cut it back, even more, when they go dormant in the summertime.

Bluebells are NOT drought tolerant.

As a rule of thumb: keep the top inch of substrate moist.

If you’re planting in partial sun, give it more water. The more light the bluebells get, the more water they’ll need.

Since they go dormant in the summertime, plant them next to late-blooming plants to offer coverage when the bluebells are spent.

Plant food

Fertilizer is not required for bluebells to thrive. If you see poor leaf growth, add some balanced plant food to help get those green leaves perking up.

Avoid overdosing with nitrogen because this will result in smaller, fewer flowers.

Get a balanced NPK that works for all purposes.

Similar to most native plants, using fertile soil is all you need.

But if you have poor soil that lacks organic matter, add some organic plant food when you plant them and top it off each season.


Virginia bluebells need shade and you should do your best to simulate their natural environment, which are woody forests with canopy coverage.

Avoid planting in direct sunlight. You can use an awning or artificial filter to block out light. Partial sunlight works if you want to add some light to show off their gorgeous bells.

Full shade also does the trick. When they reach their max height, make sure their petals don’t reach into the sunlight since they get quite tall. Taller plants that are well cared for won’t lean or need stakes.

Dappled sunlight is perfect.

If you live in a rural area and you have a wooded area, that’s an ideal location for planting bluebells! Bluebells like the shade, not the sun!

In mid-summer, they’ll go dormant and the flowers turn yellow.


Pruning is optional. It depends if you want your bluebells to self sow for the next growing season.

Cowbells readily will drop their seeds and give rise to more plants if left to their own devices.

If you have a dedicated flower bed or space in your garden for your bells, then you’ll want to deadhead them to avoid self-seeding.

Cut the foliage after it’s spent with a clean pair of pruners down to the base. There’s no point in leaving the spent flowers because it saps energy that could be used for developing a strong root system or leaves.

It’ll also make your plants less prone to insect infestations that eat spent flowers after they bloom. It also makes it a lot cleaner and tidier, as you draw attention to the flowers that are blooming rather than spent.

These flowers are easy to grow and don’t need much care after they establish themselves. So it’s up to you if you want dense coverage or neat and tidy sectioned areas of your yard.

Cut them back after they turn yellow then brown when they completely die back. This should be around mid-summer. There’s no reason to leave them be because they can bring bugs to your garden.

How can I get rid of bluebells in my garden?

Since bluebells self-sow, a lot of people consider them to be invasive.

If you want this plant to cover your garden, leaving them to sow will do the trick after a few generations.

However, you need to deadhead if you want to control their growth or limit them in your yard.


The plant goes dormant in the wintertime and should do fine on its own if you’re in the light zones.

For cold snaps or lower zones, add some mulch around the stem in the fall to protect and shield root damage.

2-3 inches of thick leaf mulch should do the trick. In warmer zones, this is unnecessary. Their cold exposure will start the seeds off and germinate them automatically.

Remove mulch in the spring if applied.

What to do with bluebells

Virginia bluebell growing in the yard.
Look at those gorgeous petals.

Virginia bluebells can be used for coverage, as they grow easily and provide a lot of foliage with minimal maintenance.

They can give your garden a makeover and spruce up shaded areas.

They also go well with other wildflowers or native gardens.

People use them for mixing beds or borders. Some of the best companion plants include hostas and ferns.

Combine with summer blooming plants to complement the summer dormancy of bluebells so your garden won’t look bare.

Other questions about bluebell care

Here are some other questions commonly asked by readers. You may find these tips and tricks helpful in getting the most out of your bluebells.

When do Virginia bluebells bloom?

Bluebells are a spring ephemeral (similar to Jacob’s Ladder), meaning they only bloom for a short period out of the entire season.

They emerge with small whitish petals that turn purple-blue depending on the soil pH and season.

They emerge in early spring and will provide plenty of green leaf cover. Then they’ll bloom in March or April (or both). Then they die back and go dormant in June.

Can you move bluebells after you plant?

Bluebells can be relocated, but they hate any disturbances.

If you want to shift a flower bed, consider using divisions from established rhizomes rather than moving individual plants.

Do bluebells grow back every year?

Yes, they’re considered to be perennials and will propagate themselves every season.

If you’re in the right zone, bluebells self sow.

Thus, they make an easy plant for beginners which requires very little care.

Why do bluebells turn white?

Virginia bluebells change their petal color based on the cultivar you’re growing and the pH of the soil. If the soil is more acidic, it’ll turn pink or red. If the soil is closer to 7 or neutral ranges, it stays purple or blue.

The plant also adjusts the colors to attract pollinators like bees and birds.

When it increases pH, it turns to that signature bluish hue that brings in bumblebees, moths, and butterflies.

You can change the color of your bluebell by adjusting the soil’s pH.

The flowers hang down in small groups and look prettiest when they’re young. They don’t make good cut flowers though. 

Are they deer resistant?

Yes, bluebells are deer restaurants which makes them a good choice for rural gardens or wildlife. They can add some nice foliage to your yard without being munched on by deer.

They’re also rabbit resistant, which makes them double hardy to wildlife. They attract bees and hummingbirds.

Why are my bluebells not flowering?

If they’re not flowering, this is likely due to poor soil conditions.

Virginia bluebells like rich, organic soils that are chock full of nutrients. Make sure that your soil is near-neutral pH. Don’t overwater.

It should be moist, but never waterlogged. Add supplemental plant food (general balanced NPK) to help weak or small petals. These plants won’t tolerate soggy soil, drought, or full sun.

Can you grow bluebells in pots?

Yes, bluebells can be grown in pots.

Just make sure to use well-draining soil and choose a pot that has multiple drainage outputs. You can add a layer of rocks in the base to prevent soil clumping.

Avoid adding plant food because this can lead to buildup inside the pot. Use a pot that has a diameter of at least 10 inches to fit one bluebell plant.

They can be the perfect addition to add some uniqueness to your yard. Just be sure to keep them in shade.

What can I plant with bluebells?

Bluebells can be paired with complementary late bloomers so they can fill the gap when your bluebells go dormant in the summertime. Hostas and ferns are ideal companion plants.

Further reading

Here are some additional references you may find useful:

Enjoy your bluebells

Bluebells growing in the garden.

You now have a solid foundation to grow and care for Virginia bluebells.

Enjoy these pretty flowers for the short season they’re in bloom.

When you get a whole garden full of them, that’s when you’re really in nature.

What do you think? Do you have any questions about growing them? How about tips to give to other readers? Leave them in the comments section and let us know!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *