Plant of the Week: Virginia bluebells

The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 500 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.

A member of the Borage (Boraginaceae) family, Mertensia virginica's flowers are borne on coiled inflorescences, reflecting a significant color change from pink to blue as the buds mature. The habitat for Mertensia virginica, also known as Virginia bluebells, is mainly semi-shaded areas in moist forests especially along streams and low slopes.

The first signs to look for are the leaves which emerge as a purplish-green (possibly due to high levels of anthocyanins) in early April and then bloom before the tree leafs out. The leaves will eventually turn completely green and then yellow before disappearing completely by late June once the seeds have matured.

This is the first year that we can enjoy this beautiful carpet of self-seeders on the High Line. We've been losing some of the herbaceous layers in the area due to shade. And the easily grown clusters of dangling bluebell-like flowers have found their home in the area since being planted to form a captivating combination with the Betula populifolia (grey birch).

Bumblebees are the primary insects attracted to these bell-shaped blue flowers and although several species have tongues long enough to reach the accumulated nectar from the base of the corolla tube, others have adopted a different strategy slitting the corolla tube at the base from the outside and burrowing to the nectar inside. This process is actually quite beneficial as they transfer pollen to the stigma when they brush against it.


If you intend to try growing Mertensia virginica at home, the best time to do this is in the fall. Direct sow seeds just below the surface of the soil and keep the soil moist. You can also divide your bluebells and plant the divisions.


Look for this native spring ephemeral in the Gansevoort Woodland and Washington Grasslands area between West 12th & West 13th Streets.

Photos by Ayinde Listhrop.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

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