Propagating the Spring Favorite – Mertensia virginica

Rooted Wisdom: Growing Native Plants with Enrique Rodriguez

Enrique Rodriguez is the Production Foreman at Midwest Natural Garden. He has been with the Midwest Companies since 1999. This article was compiled from insights and production practices shared by Enrique.

One of the most exciting signs of spring is the transition from a season of dormancy to new growth. The emergence of ephemerals epitomizes the renewal and awakening of the growing season. Nourished by the rich, organic soils of the woodland floor, ephemerals emerge before the trees above have had time to leaf out. Their bloom time is fleeting, and they quickly go dormant under the protective cover of the shade above.  

Mertensia virginica blooms
Mertensia virginica blooming at the Midwest Natural Garden on April 18, 2023.

One of the most recognizable spring ephemerals is Mertensia virginica or Virginia Bluebells. Typically blooming from late April into early June, you can almost hear the trumpet-shaped, blue flowers announcing the coming of warm months ahead. While Mertensia virginica can be relatively easy to grow, it is not the easiest plant to propagate, and we often find ourselves running short of demand. And the demand is high! In 2022, Natural Garden Natives® sold 1,804 pints and 690 one gallons of Mertensia viginica.

Mertensia virginica can be difficult to grow and propagate in large quantities due to the very short window of time the seed can be collected. Once the seeds ripen and turn black, they quickly fall from the plant and become lost in the forest floor. Enrique has taken several steps to address this issue. The first is to keep a very close eye on the Mertensia virginica stock beds in early summer. Within a day, they can go from forming into viable seeds to falling off the plant. Once the first seeds start to turn black, Enrique and his team quickly harvest the remaining seeds and place them on plastic until they are fully ripened.

Locating the stock beds in late May/early June can also be a challenge. When Mertensia virginica goes

Mertensia Stock Bed
1,500 Mertensia virginica plugs were planted in 2022 to use for seed collection.

dormant in early summer, it can quickly become hidden under plants on the forest floor. Enrique places flags around the “mother” plants so they can be found when it’s time to harvest seed. Another way to ensure we have more seed to collect is having more plants to collect from. With this in mind, last fall, 1,500 Mertensia virginica plugs were planted along the forest floor at the Midwest Natural Garden. As these plugs mature, they will start producing seed so we can bring even more Mertensia virginica into landscapes throughout the region.

Click here to learn more about spring ephemerals.

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