Arresting and ephemeral. These two lovely adjectives seem common in the botanicals when naturalists describe Virginia Bluebells, one of my favorite native wildflowers in low-lying land during the fleeting days of mid-Spring.
Now, as the Summer months approach, the remnants of Virginia Bluebells lie yellowed, beaten down, and otherwise overlooked in their rich bottomland habitat. But, in late April, this plant stood proudly and full of promise as a sentinel of the pending verdure of Spring along with its fellow bloomers, the redbud and flowering dogwood.
In addition to its arresting and ephemeral features, one might also add the word, convoluted, to its natural history.
Let’s begin with its numerous common names. In addition to Virginia Bluebells, it is also known as Virginia Cowslip, Lungwort, and Jefferson’s Blue-Funnel Flowers.
The “blue” in the common name refers to its eye-catching blue efflorescence that attracted much attention in the 18th century when the plant was first described by early taxonomists. One might call it nostalgic attention. The Cowslip, a common yellow flower in Europe and Asia, has a similar tubular construction so the colonists assumed back then that the flowers must be related – despite the differences in their colors and flower structures.
Since the plant was located in the Virginia Colony (that is, in its original sense, all the territory “coast to coast” between the 34th and 39th parallels), it was naturally named “Virginia Bluebells” or “Virginia Cowslips.”
The name, Lungwort, was also due to a mistaken identity. (Isn’t history wonderful in hindsight?) The European Lungwort has spotted leaves shaped like ulcerated lungs. Its scientific name, Pulmonaria, reflects this etymology. Embracing a now-debunked “science” called the “Doctrine of Signatures,” early herbalists prescribed the plant for the treatment of pulmonary disorders.
So folks back then naturally referenced the Virginia plant as a Lungwort because of its vaguely similar flower and leaf shapes. I hasten to add, however, that the leaves of Virginia Bluebells look perfectly healthy with their vibrant green coloration and do not resemble a diseased liver in the slightest degree!
Finally, the reference to Thomas Jefferson was originally made by garden writers in the 18th Century when they observed the plants growing around Monticello, thereby satisfying one of Jefferson’s intentions that his home be a place of learning for estate visitors.
That’s the “arresting” part of my article title. What about the word, ephemeral?
The ephemeral nature of its flowers (that is, their quick color changes and aging) may link to its array of pollinators.
At first, when I researched the plant’s natural history, I was confused by its many animal ministers: butterflies, long-tongued bees, short-tongued bees, beetles, hummingbirds, and such. I was confused, for instance, because butterflies and bees tend to go for flower colors at opposite ends of the color spectrum (pinks and reds versus blues, respectively).
Then I sorted it out!
As you may know, Virginia Bluebells form pink, not blue, buds. The color is due to anthocyanin, a kind of colored cell sap that changes like litmus paper to blue as the flower increases its internal alkalinity. As it turns out, young pink or reddish flowers tend to provide greater pollen and nectar rewards than do blue flowers and, initially, attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other high-metabolism organisms.
Later the blue flowers draw a different company of insect pollinators such as beetles and long-tongued bees. After pollination and early-seed formation, the old blue flowers fall off the stem so that subsequent pollinators will only find blooms that still require their ministrations.
And what about those short-tongued bees that cannot reach deeply into the tubular flowers? They’re nectar thieves: they bite into the base of the blossoms, stealing the nectar without benefiting the flower!
This is a fascinating evolutionary story: floral color change like this can actually increase the efficiency of pollen transfer via its guild of pollinators to enhance plant fitness!
Thus, the term, ephemeral, not only refers to the brief life of an individual flower but also to its shifting color scheme that attracts its many insect visitors, provides them with rewarding nutrition, and ensures rapid generational continuity of the species.
If something might be termed convoluted, then our lovely Virginia Bluebells carry the day with their complicated natural history!
Let me close with a general note about our native wildflowers. Early naturalists assigned common and scientific names to this plethora of New World botanical treasure based on a constricted worldview: utilitarian, creationist, and unchanging. These were the days before Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, James Watson and Francis Crick, and Stephen Jay Gould. And, no doubt, the early naturalists were a bit homesick for the familiarity of their “Old Country” haunts.
So it’s understandable that they would find similarity and likeness among species that we moderns would never confuse because of our 21st-century evolutionary perspective. Bluebells and cowslips belong to different plant families and, thus, have different origins like bears and bobcats that belong to different families of carnivores. In our neo-Darwinian world, we no longer have an excuse for any lingering ignorance about life’s ancient origins and vast interconnections.
Whew. Now I’m off to have a look at some of our native ferns. Now that’s an old complex story to tell!
H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is a forest ecologist and science educator. Since July 2014, he has been the Executive Director of the Valley Conservation Council, a land trust protecting America’s legendary Shenandoah Valley for a quarter-century. valleyconservation.org