Mertensia paniculata



© G. D. Carr

Reeves, Sonja L. 2006. Mertensia paniculata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].




Species name―
tall bluebells
tall mertensia
panicled bluebells

Alaska tall bluebells
northern bluebells
Eastwood's bluebells

The scientific name of tall bluebells is Mertensia paniculata (Ait.) G. Don (Boraginaceae) [11,19,26,30,34,37,41,70]. There are currently 4 recognized varieties of tall bluebells. Throughout this review, varieties will be identified by their common names.

Mertensia paniculata var. alaskana (Britt.) Williams [1,34], Alaska tall bluebells
Mertensia paniculata var. borealis (Macbr.) Williams [9,30,31,42], northern bluebells
Mertensia paniculata var. eastwoodae (Macbr.) Hultén [34], Eastwood's bluebells
Mertensia paniculata var. paniculata [30,34], tall bluebells (typical variety)


No special status

Information on state-level protected status of plants in the United States is available at Plants Database.


SPECIES: Mertensia paniculata
Tall bluebells is native to North America. It is distributed from Alaska east to Quebec and south to Wisconsin and Oregon. Disjunct populations of tall bluebells occur in Connecticut [1,26,37,70].

Distribution of varieties: Of the tall bluebells varieties, the typical variety is the most widespread. Its distribution is identical to that of the species. Alaska tall bluebells is limited to Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territory [37]. Northern bluebells occurs in northwestern Montana, adjacent Idaho, and British Columbia south to Washington and Oregon [30,37]. Eastwood's bluebells is present in Alaska and Northwest Territory [1,37]. Plants Database provides a distributional map of tall bluebells and its varieties.

FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES11 Spruce-fir
FRES19 Aspen-birch
FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES22 Western white pine
FRES23 Fir-spruce
FRES24 Hemlock-Sitka spruce
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES28 Western hardwoods

STATES/PROVINCES: (key to state/province abbreviations)


1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
8 Northern Rocky Mountains

K002 Cedar-hemlock-Douglas-fir forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K013 Cedar-hemlock-pine forest
K015 Western spruce-fir forest
K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest
K094 Conifer bog

1 Jack pine
5 Balsam fir
12 Black spruce
13 Black spruce-tamarack
16 Aspen
18 Paper birch
37 Northern white-cedar
38 Tamarack
107 White spruce
201 White spruce
202 White spruce-paper birch
203 Balsam poplar
204 Black spruce
206 Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir
210 Interior Douglas-fir
213 Grand fir
215 Western white pine
217 Aspen
218 Lodgepole pine
222 Black cottonwood-willow
224 Western hemlock
227 Western redcedar-western hemlock
228 Western redcedar
229 Pacific Douglas-fir
251 White spruce-aspen
252 Paper birch
253 Black spruce-white spruce
254 Black spruce-paper birch

901 Alder
904 Black spruce-lichen
905 Bluejoint reedgrass
906 Broadleaf forest
908 Fescue
917 Tall shrub swamp
918 Tussock tundra
920 White spruce-paper birch

Tall bluebells is a dominant species in the following boreal forest community types of North America [22]:


SPECIES: Mertensia paniculata


  © G. D. Carr

This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant for identification. Keys for identification are available [1,11,19,26,30,41,42,54,70].

Tall bluebells is a native, perennial forb. Aerial stems are erect, 1 to many, and are 8 to 59 inches (20-150 cm) tall. They arise from a fibrous caudex or stout rhizome. Each aerial stem produces 1 to several inflorescences with few to many pendulous, bell-shaped flowers. Basal leaves, when present, are 2 to 8 inches (5-20 cm) long, 1 to 4 inches (2.5-10 cm) wide, cordate to ovate, and borne on 6- to 12-inch- (15-30 cm) long petioles. They are distinctly veined. Numerous cauline leaves are alternate, lanceolate to cordate, 1.2 to 7 inches (3-18 cm) long, 0.4 to 3 inches (1-8 cm) wide, and short-petiolate. They are strigose above and coarsely strigose beneath. Each flower produces 0 to 4 single-seeded nutlets [1,11,26,31,50,52,54].

Descriptions and a key for identifying 3 of the tall bluebells varietiesAlaska tall bluebells, Eastwood's bluebells, and the typical varietyare available in [34]. A general description for northern bluebells is available in [9,31].


Tall bluebells regenerates mostly by vegetative means [29,38]. Morris [50] states that tall bluebells is "clonal, but nonspreading". Tall bluebells reproduces from ramets that typically remain tightly clustered around the parent plant, possibly limiting clonal spreading [18,29]. Hicks and Turkington [29] mention sprouting from rhizomes. Mann and Plug [47] state that excavated tall bluebell individuals were spreading laterally by adventitious roots, and it is on this basis that they inferred its capability to reproduce by sprouting. It is also likely that tall bluebells regenerates from seed. Further research is needed on the regeneration of tall bluebells from seed.

Pollination: Bumble bees are the only documented pollinator of tall bluebells [46,50].

Breeding system: No information is available on this topic.

Seed production: Each flower may produce up to 4 single-seeded nutlets [50].

Seed dispersal: No information is available on this topic.

Seed banking: Soil excavated from a tussock tundra site at Eagle Creek, Alaska, was tested in the laboratory for viable seeds. Tall bluebells was part of the aboveground tundra vegetation but did not germinate in the laboratory [48], suggesting either that it does not have a great capacity for seed banking or that its germination requirements were not met during testing.

Germination: No information is available on this topic.

Seedling establishment/growth: No information is available on this topic.

Vegetative regeneration: Tall bluebells regenerates vegetatively from rhizomes [29].

Tall bluebells shows an affinity to "rich" boreal forest sites [12]. Site descriptions are provided below.

State, Region, Province Variety, if applicable Site Characteristics
Alaska (and neighboring Provinces) Alaska tall bluebells woods and riverbanks
Eastwood's bluebell woods and riverbanks
typical variety woods, riverbanks, in McKinley Park to 5,600 feet (1,700 m) [34]
Idaho northern bluebells streamsides and wet meadows [52]
riverbanks, rocky slopes, wet meadows; 5,000-8,400 feet (1,500-2,600 m) [9]
Michigan ...* Coniferous swamps and woods, shaded edges of streams, rocky openings; rarely in deciduous woods [70]
Montana (west-central) ... moist woods and meadows [11,19]
Mt Rainier National Park ... moist places; 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200-1,800 m) [61]
Pacific Northwest ... streambanks, wet meadows, damp thickets, and wet cliffs, open forests at all elevations [31,54]
Selway-Bitterroot Mountains, ID and MT ... riverbanks to timberline [41]
Canada ... damp woods [26]
*variety not stated

Tall bluebells is a shade tolerant species [38,44] that occurs in early and late-seral communities. Although generally most common in mid-succession, it has been observed in early successional boreal communities in Alaska and Canada after fire, clearcutting, and logging/burning [15,24,57,59,63]. Mean frequency and cover of tall bluebells was greatest on newly burned white spruce stands in Alaska, and tall bluebells maintained mean frequency and cover throughout all other stages of succession [24].

Tall bluebells is often present in early seral stages and increases in frequency and cover over time. Average percent cover of tall bluebells increased, though not significantly (P=0.516), within a regenerating quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) stand in Alberta 3, 5, 9, and 20 years after clearcutting. Percent cover was 1%, 2%, 1%, and 4%, respectively [63]. On 18- and 19-year-old black spruce plantations, tall bluebells had mean relative frequency of 3%. Twenty years later at the same site, mean relative frequency was 39% [35]. Tall bluebells was not present in the pioneer stage (25 to 35 years) on gravel outwash from the Muldrow Glacier in Alaska. Cover and frequency increased throughout the meadow (100 years after glacial scour), early shrub (150-200 years), and late shrub (200-300 years) stages, with the greatest tall bluebells cover and frequency during the latter. There was no evidence of tall bluebells in climax tundra (5,000-9,000 years) [68]. Tall bluebells percent frequency and cover increased through the 1st 3 stages of succession recorded for the Chena River floodplain near Fairbanks, Alaska, but tall bluebells was not present in later successional and climax communities. Percent frequency and cover for tall bluebells are provided below [69].

Successional stage Percent frequency Percent cover
15-year-old Alaska willow (Salix alaxensis) stand 10 <1
50-year-old balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) stand 20 1
120-year-old white spruce stand 40 2
220-year-old white spruce-black spruce stand 0 0
climax black spruce/sphagnum (Sphagnum spp.) stand 0 0

Flowering dates for tall bluebells are provided below.

State or province Anthesis period
Idaho May to August [52]
Ontario June to September [36]
Yukon May to June [32]


SPECIES: Mertensia paniculata
Fire adaptations: Postfire regeneration for tall bluebells is mostly vegetative. Tall bluebells sprouts from surface or buried vegetative parts [72]. Buried rhizomes are most likely to sprout. Tall bluebells may also regenerate from off-site seed sources after fire. Neither seed dispersal nor seedling establishment is documented for tall bluebells, with or without fire. Further research is needed on tall bluebells's fire ecology.

Fire regimes: The white-black spruce boreal forest ecosystems where tall bluebells most commonly occurs are susceptible to frequent (35-200 years), stand-replacing fires because of the accumulation of large amounts of highly flammable organic matter. Tall bluebells is also common in quaking aspen-dominated boreal forest ecosystems that are characteristic of a mixed-severity fire regime [20].

The following table provides fire return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems where tall bluebells is important. For further information, see the FEIS review of the dominant species listed below.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
grand fir Abies grandis 35-200 [3]
birch Betula spp. 80-230 [65]
tamarack Larix laricina 35-200 [53]
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to >200 [20]
Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir Picea engelmannii-Abies lasiocarpa 35 to >200 [3]
black spruce P. mariana 35-200
conifer bog* P. mariana-Larix laricina 35-200 [20]
jack pine Pinus banksiana <35 to 200 [14,20]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* P. contorta var. latifolia 25-340 [6,7,66]
Sierra lodgepole pine* P. contorta var. murrayana 35-200
western white pine* P. monticola 50-200 [3]
aspen-birch Populus tremuloides-Betula 35-200 [20,71]
quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains) P. tremuloides 7-120 [3,27,49]
Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca 25-100 [3,4,5]
coastal Douglas-fir* P. menziesii var. menziesii 40-240 [3,51,58]
western redcedar-western hemlock Thuja plicata-Tsuga heterophylla >200 [3]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review

Rhizomatous herb, rhizome in soil
Caudex/herbaceous root crown, growing points in soil
Geophyte, growing points deep in soil
Secondary colonizer (on-site or off-site seed sources)


SPECIES: Mertensia paniculata
Tall bluebells is likely top-killed by fire.

No additional information is available on this topic.

Tall bluebells sprouts from the caudex, rhizomes, and roots after fire. It is known to establish on burned soils, likely from an off-site seed source [2,47,72].

Underground vegetative parts allow for tall bluebells regeneration after fire. Mann and Plug [47] excavated 5 tall bluebells individuals and found plants were spreading laterally by adventitious roots, some as deep as 2 inches (5 cm) below the mineral soil surface. On this basis they inferred that tall bluebells can reproduce after fires by sprouting. Vegetative regeneration of tall bluebells following the 1999 Black River wildfire on quaking aspen boreal forests in southeastern Manitoba was recorded for each fire severity class. During the 1st 4 years after fire, tall bluebells was least abundant on severely burned plots [72,73].

Fire severity

Mean percent cover Mean percent frequency
Scorched (litter not burned or partially burned) 1.1 11
Lightly burned (litter burned but without or with very limited duff consumption) 2.9 23
Severely burned (forest floor completely consumed) <0.1 1

Tall bluebells responds favorably after fire. It established on mesic sites in the 2nd growing season following a prescribed fire on a jack pine clearcut in Saskatchewan [13]. Tall bluebells was present on 6 of 21 burned stands 12 to 15 years following fire on boreal forests in southeastern Manitoba. Mean percent tall bluebells cover was 0.9% [38]. Frequency and cover of tall bluebells were not significantly affected by a prescribed burn on Lutz spruce (Picea × lutzii) stands in Alaska. Tall bluebells cover before and 7 years after fire was 8% to 6%, respectively, and frequency ranged from 12% before to 18% seven years after fire. Tall bluebells cover and frequency on unburned transects increased in the same years. Cover went from 2% before fire to 8% after fire, and frequency from 15% to 31% [33]. Whether regeneration came from off-site seed or vegetative sprouting was not indicated in either article.

Studies on tall bluebells regeneration from seed after fire are few and inconclusive. Soil block samples collected a week after wildfire on a quaking aspen boreal forest in Alberta were observed under greenhouse conditions to determine the effects of burn severity on seed banks, vegetative banks, and emergent understory species 2 years following fire. Tall bluebells did not germinate in soil samples and had a very low vegetative bank index (proportion of rhizomes present among all blocks; n=30) of 0.03 on blocks taken from "intensely" (complete consumption of aboveground vegetation) burned and unburned sites. Mean percent cover for tall bluebells as an emergent understory species 2 years following fire was: 5.65% on intensely burned sites, 4.28% on "lightly" (characterized by death of aboveground plant parts) burned sites, and 1.19% on unburned sites [43]. In 1972, a study site on quaking aspen stands in central Alberta was burned under prescription. The site was reburned in 1978. Tall bluebells was not observed on either control or burned plots after the 1972 fire. It was, however, found on reburned plots in 1978 [55]. It is possible that in these studies, tall bluebells emerged on the burned areas from an off-site seed source. See the Research Project Summary Understory recovery after burning and reburning quaking aspen stands in central Alberta for an extended report on the Quintilio and others [55] study.

The current body of research provides no clear direction for using fire as a management tool for tall bluebells populations. Research (discussed above) suggests that fire does not significantly hinder tall bluebells populations and may even have positive effects. Further research is needed.


SPECIES: Mertensia paniculata
There is little documentation of tall bluebell use by animals. It is a main component of the snowshoe hare summer diet in Yukon Territory [29], a known grizzly bear food plant in southern Canada and the conterminous 48 United States [16], and an important species for elk in the summer in northern Idaho [45].

Palatability/nutritional value: No information is available on this topic.

Cover value: No information is available on this topic.

Tall bluebells was planted for restoration of alpine and subalpine areas disturbed by construction, visitor impact, and mining in Denali National Park, Alaska. Tall bluebells plants were propagated from seed under greenhouse conditions and subsequently planted into a raised nursery bed. The plants were "large, vigorous, and flowering" within 1 year of transplanting [17].

No information is available on this topic.

Tall bluebells shows some resistance to disturbance. In British Columbia, tall bluebells percent cover increased on sites that were disked and then sprayed with glyphosate compared to sites that were just disked. On undisked sites, tall bluebells percent cover was lower on the sprayed site than the site with no treatment [10].

Tall bluebells increased or maintained pretreatment levels after white spruce harvesting on Willow Island near Fairbanks, Alaska. The percent frequency of tall bluebells surpassed pretreatment levels within 1 year, and percent cover was surpassed within 2 years of clearcutting. One year after a shelterwood treatment, tall bluebells cover value remained the same, and frequency decreased slightly [21]. Harvesting in quaking aspen stands in British Columbia significantly (P≤0.05) increased the cover of tall bluebells on both grazed and ungrazed study areas, more so in the latter. Greater light transmission and reduced plant competition for water and nutrients after harvesting may increase tall bluebells cover. The percent cover of tall bluebells after treatments is detailed below [39].

  Ungrazed treatment Grazed treatment
Unharvested 0.5 3.7
Harvested 4.3 5.9

Conversely, there is evidence that tall bluebells is intolerant to logging disturbance. In northeastern British Columbia tall bluebells is strongly associated with unlogged plant communities. It showed a reduction in frequency after clearcutting [28].

Herbicides: On boreal quaking aspen stands in Alberta, tall bluebells percent cover was reduced after applications of the herbicide hexazinone. The herbicide was applied in a 3-year-old regenerating quaking aspen clearcut to determine the effects of spraying on the compositional and structural development of vegetation [64].

Mertensia paniculata: REFERENCES

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