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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Borage Family (Forget-me-not Family): Boraginaceae

The Mertensias (Bluebells)

The Leafy bluebell, Mertensia oblongifolia (Nutt.) G. Don. (left, right) The leafy bluebell is one of the most common early spring flowers. Its bright blue-to-purplish (rarely pink; or white) blooms are found on sagebrush-covered foothills, appearing soon after the snow-melt to subalpine elevations—the first blue flower to appear in the spring. The name, oblongifolia reflects the plant’s wide leaves. All mertensias have five sepals enclosing five petals. These form a tube that flares more or less abruptly into the free part of the petals. This plant's tube is longer and the flare less pronounced than in some of the other species. The German botanist Karl Heinrich Mertens (1796-1830) collected plants while on a Russian scientific expedition to Alaska in 1827. He applied the name Mertensia to honor his father, Franz Karl Mertens (1764–1831), also a botanist. The various mertensias grow primarily in northwestern North America.

Mountain or Ciliate Bluebell, Mertensia ciliata (James ex Torr.) G. Don var. ciliata. The ciliate bluebell’s species name, ciliata, means “fringed” because a fringe of fine hairs can be seen on the margins of leaves when they are held up to the light. The plants are found from mid- to sub-alpine elevations growing along streambanks, often in prodigious numbers forming rivers of green and blue. Typically the petals are longer than the tube and flare outward. Their color is a delicate blue when they grow in shady areas, and brighter in the open, especially at higher altitudes. The plants are several feet tall, the lush leaves are deep green, elliptical to broadly lanceolate, and up to six inches long. M. ciliata is a favorite browse plant for elk, deer, and other animals, and it is common to find matted areas where large animals have bedded down in the thick plant growth where they sometimes give birth to their young. The common name "tall fringed bluebell" has been suggested for this plant.

The Idaho Bluebell, Mertensia campanulata A. Nelson. The Idaho bluebell is a meadow plant, found only in central Idaho. It grows in tallish clumps to montane elevations, sometimes in large patches (left). Both the leaves and stems are bluish-green and have a frosted (“glaucous”) appearance. The leaves are smooth, without prominent veins. Its flowers are narrow and the break between the tube and the short outer petals is less sharp than in other bluebells. These appear in late spring and then die completely away in the summer’s heat. The word campanulata means “bell-shaped,” a name that could apply equally well to the flowers of most mertensias. (Note that the name “bluebell” is used in other localities for various unrelated flowers, emphasizing the importance of binomial scientific names.)

Oregon bluebell, Mertensia bella Piper (left). The Oregon bluebell is the least common of the several species of mertensia shown here, for, while it occurs in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and California, it is considered to be an uncommon plant in all four states; in Idaho it is found only in Clearwater and Idaho counties. It may be identified by its thin, green leaves whose upper surface is covered with fine hairs and the undersurface is smooth. The leaves’ veins are more prominent than those of our other mertensias. The flowers are open and the small lobes at the end are rounded. The plant is usually found in moist surroundings, growing to mid-elevations in our mountains.

The Alpine Bluebell, Mertensia alpina (Torr.) G. Don. (right) is a small alpine plant, usually only four or five inches high with narrow leaves. It grows at or above treeline. It is not common in Idaho and is found in the higher mountains of the Centennial Range along the Idaho-Montana border (Fremont County). Its flowers, while similar to those of other bluebells, have a slender tube surmounted with joined, flaring petals.

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