Desert Bluebells: How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Phacelia Campanularia
Are you considering adding some desert bluebell flowers to your home or garden? These plants are a favorite amongst many gardeners due to their beautifully colored flowers. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton explains how to plant, grow, and care for Phacelia Campanularia.
Take a walk around the California deserts Mojave and Sonoran in spring and you may notice giant carpets of purple-blue flowers nestled around the rocks. These little blooms transform the dusty rocks into seas of color up until summer when the flowers die down.
But, they aren’t restricted to these regions and have also become popular garden plants across the United States. We’re talking about Phacelia campanularia, also known as Desert Bluebells, which is different than the European bluebells known as Hyacinthoides Non-Scripta.
Reaching just over two feet in height, these annuals with interesting foliage and flowers that are even better are great fillers for any garden.
Desert Bluebell Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual
Species Phacelia campanularia
Native Area United States
Hardiness Zone USDA 5-10
Exposure Full Sun
Plant Spacing 12 inches
Plant Height 2 feet
Watering Requirements Low
Soil Type Sandy or Rocky
Attracts Bees, Butterflies, Hummingbirds
Plant With California Poppies
Don’t Plant With Water-loving Plants
Desert Bluebells are found in the wild in a small region of the southwestern United States. They cover the higher rocky areas of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts that extend from California into Arizona and beyond.
In spring, especially after strong winter rains, the flowers bloom all at the same time. Due to their captivating blue color, this makes quite the display, especially in contrast to the stark surrounding deserts.
As pretty as they appear in these regions, they should not be removed from their natural habitats. Firstly, these plants are annuals and will not rebloom the following year if you plant them somewhere else. Secondly, removing plants from their native environments disturbs the local habitat and influences other plants and wildlife.
One person taking one plant may not be noticed, but if everyone had to remove these stunning flowers, they would certainly become endangered in their native area, especially since they are already classified as vulnerable.
If you want to appreciate them out in the wild, you can hike through one of these deserts. But, if you want to appreciate them in your own garden, there are many options available to you. Desert Bluebells are popular ornamental plants that you should easily come across at your local nursery, depending on your region.
They are usually sold as seeds to plant straight into the garden. Phacelia campanularia is often used in wildflower seed mixes too, depending on your region. Take a look at the back of the packet to see whether Desert Bluebells are included. Alternatively, you can get separate packs of seeds and make your own wildflower mix which will produce the same result.
Phacelia campanularia is propagated from seed. You can either collect these from the plant to replant in new areas of your garden or leave them to spread naturally as they do in the wild. As these plants are annuals, you will need to replant every year if you want continuous blooms in your garden. In this case, propagating is definitely the way to go.
Propagating From Seed
Desert Bluebells will flower in spring, with the exact times depending on the weather. These types of flowers typically die down in mid to late spring, after which point you can begin harvesting the seeds from the plant.
The plant will produce seed pods once it has finished flowering. Inside these pods are small seeds that will be visible as the pods open. Once the seeds are ready and the pods have opened, you can remove the stalk and shake off the seeds.
Once you’ve gathered your seeds, it’s time to prepare the planting site. Planting is best done in late fall – around November – for flowering in early spring or even late winter. Due to the climates these plants are native to, soil temperatures should be around 60F-70F to facilitate germination.
Ensure the area is completely free of weeds and any other plant debris. The soil should be sandy and dry or mixed with fine gravel to create the perfect environment for these plants. Then, simply place the seeds on top of the soil around 12 inches apart. If you’re going for a more natural wildflower look, you can also sprinkle the seeds around in a random pattern and leave them on the soil where they land rather than planting in rows.
To achieve natural propagation, don’t remove any of the flowers from the plant once they have finished blooming. As the seed pods open, they will naturally spread the existing seeds to the soil around the plant. Once that plant dies back, new sprouts will take their place in about two weeks.
If the seeds are not spreading as quickly or as far as you would like them to, you can also give the plant a bit of help by shaking the stalks.
In the right area, this propagating method requires virtually no effort from you while providing new plants each year.
The planting process couldn’t be easier. Simply sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil where you want them to grow, or space them about 12 inches apart for a more structured look. No covering is required – they should be left on top and exposed to the light to replicate natural propagation. Water after planting and leave the rain to do most of the work. Seeds should germinate within a month.
When planting seeds in a wildflower mix, the process is the same. Ensure your seeds are well-distributed to prevent clumps of the same plant from popping up in one spot. Sprinkle them along the ground as naturally as possible to stop the bed from appearing too structured.
How to Grow
When it comes to growing desert bluebells, you’ll need to fully understand how they react to their environment. You’ll want to understand their light requirements, watering needs, preferred soil types, temperatures, fertilizer, and how to properly maintain them. Let’s take a look at all the factors that go into growing this amazing plant.
Phacelia campanularia should be planted in a full sun position with as much light as possible. These plants are found in desert conditions where sunlight is plentiful. In their natural habitats, they are exposed to full sun for almost the entire day and should be planted in the sunniest spot possible.
Too much shade will stunt the plants’ growth and lead to fewer flowers. Anything less than six hours of full sunlight falls under this category. The plants may also stretch toward light sources, becoming distorted and losing their strong upright nature. If the plants begin to droop or have sparse growth, they need more sunlight.
Too much sun is not a concern for these desert plants. Some annuals will need protection from harsh afternoon sun in summer in order to continue flowering and prevent stress. However, Desert Bluebells do not mind the heat at all. Plus, their flowering season ends in spring, meaning higher temperatures in summer won’t interfere with the delicate, beautiful flowers.
Winter rains are vital for the growth and flowering of this plant. If you live in an area with dry winters, provide some extra water over this time to kickstart growth. In their native areas, Desert Bluebells are drenched with high winter rainfall and need this to trigger their growth cycle.
Once the plant begins to grow and flower in spring, you can majorly limit this watering. Rain should take care of most of the plants watering needs. Again, as they are used to desert conditions, they can manage for several days without water, even in the rocky well-draining soil they are planted in.
Desert Bluebells are very drought tolerant and can handle plenty of neglect in watering. Only provide additional water if there is no rainfall for long stretches of time. Leave the soil to dry out completely before the next watering to prevent any chances of root rot.
As is the case with many other plants, the most important soil characteristic is drainage. These desert natives cannot be left to sit in water under any circumstances. The soil should be as well-draining and light as possible, similar to succulent soil conditions. This makes them great for desert landscapes where water is less available.
This also means loose sandy or rocky soil is ideal. Soils that would be considered ‘poor quality’ in terms of structure or nutrient density are perfect for this plant. Clay soil is an absolute no-go. Loam can be amended with sand or gravel to replicate the necessary conditions. The root systems are not particularly deep, so soil amendments don’t need to be worked too far down into the soil before planting.
These plants are ideal for sections of your garden where the soil quality is too poor for other annuals and perennials to grow. They make a stunning display when planted in massive groups and can cover a large area with ease. If you let them spread their seeds after flowering, you will have no problems with plants in that area for years to come.
Climate and Temperature
You’ve probably gauged the required climate from the ‘Desert’ in the name ‘Desert Bluebell’. Phacelia campanularia is grown in warm, dry regions with a Mediterranean-type climate. Hot dry summers and wet winters are ideal conditions for these annuals.
This means they are not suitable for growth in many parts of the US. Growth should be focused close to the coastal areas where climates are warm, but not too humid. Although they adapt very well to different conditions, they are best grown in USDA Zones 9 or 10. They can survive colder areas down to Zone 5 with some extra care and attention.
These plants can survive in temperatures from 32F to 80F, but prefer to hang around the 65F to 70F range.
Needing poor quality soils for optimal growth, Phacelia campanularia do not require any fertilizing. In fact, fertilizing will likely do more harm to the plant than doing nothing at all. The roots are easily scorched by high levels of nutrients and the plant will perform far worse or potentially stop flowering if given excessive fertilizers.
These annuals come with everything they need to produce masses of stunning flowers. Sunlight is the most important part of this equation, not fertilizer.
Desert Bluebells are truly one of the most low-maintenance plants you can find. When planted in the right conditions, they will almost completely take care of themselves. They thrive more on neglect than attention, making them ideal for beginners or low-maintenance gardens.
The only thing you may want to do at the end of the season is pull out the dying annuals to make space for new ones to emerge. Throw the remainders on the compost pile to be put to good use in your garden in the coming months and years.
However, they manage this process naturally in the wild and will also be fine without a clean-up. Unless you have plants nearby that may be affected by the debris – such as plants prone to problems with fungal diseases – you can leave them as they are to die back naturally.
If you are growing Desert Bluebells in conditions they are not accustomed to, the maintenance will be much higher. For example, if you live in a region with dry winters, you will need to water your plants frequently during this time to replicate the winter rainfall of its natural habitat.
The same can be said for soil conditions. If planted in anything other than sandy, rocky soil, you will need to keep an eye out on watering more often to ensure the plant does not experience root rot. It all depends on where you live and what you need to do in your area to make the plant happy
There are two subspecies of Phacelia campanularia. The most common is known as Phacelia campanularia ssp. vasiformis, spread across a wider native range and sporting larger flowers. If you see any images of Desert Bluebells online, they are likely of this subspecies.
Phacelia campanularia ssp. vasiformis produces the compound phacelianin. This is an anthocyanin, or plant pigment, that makes the flowers their vivid blue color. Very few plants found in the wild are naturally blue, making these even more special.
The other variety is known as Phacelia campanularia ssp. campanularia. This subspecies is found in a more limited region, mainly in the Sonoran Desert.
The Desert Bluebells found in your local nursery and in home gardens will more than likely be Phacelia campanularia ssp. vasiformis. However, both these plants have very similar growth requirements, with very little to differentiate between the two.
Pests and Diseases
The low-maintenance nature of this plant extends to the category of pests and diseases. That’s because it is virtually pest and disease-free. This native plant has developed resistance to several common garden diseases and experiences few problems in gardens and especially out in the wild.
However, it is still important to keep this plant as healthy as possible. Factors like excessive watering and high humidity levels can still stress the plant, even if not explicitly resulting in disease. Follow the same precautions by maintaining the right conditions and giving the plants enough space to grow. Always clean tools before using them around your plants or in the soil too.
Bluebells are useful for a number of home garden applications. Due to their native status and ease of growth, their most common application is in wildflower gardens. The long stems with bright blue flowers stand out amongst the seas of other plants. They are often included in wildflower mixes in the specific regions they are grown in.
But a wildflower bed doesn’t have to consist of just one plant. If you want to replicate the Desert Bluebell wild look, plant tens or hundreds of seeds in the same area. In spring, your garden will be transformed into a true sea of blue that will catch anyone’s eye.
Their shape and delicate structure make them suitable for cottage gardens too. However, it’s always important to keep their growing conditions in mind. Don’t plant with any other perennials or annuals that require plenty of water or nutrient-dense soil, or they will likely not last the season.
Their affinity for sandy, well-draining soil is ideal in rock gardens or prairie gardens. They will even do well planted amongst succulents in rock gardens as they like the same soil conditions.
Desert Bluebells are great pollinators, attracting native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Plant them alongside other compatible flowering plants for a buzzing bed that livens up your garden area. These pollinators will also help the rest of your garden at the same time, and increase the biodiversity of the area overall.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are desert bluebells poisonous?
It is hard to resist touching these gorgeous flowers. Due to their wildflower look, many want to run their hands through the flowers when they come across them in the wild. However, touching these plants frequently is not recommended.
The plant has tiny hairs on the stems and flowers and sap that can produce a skin reaction in some people when touched. The symptoms are described as similar to a poison ivy rash. Gardeners who are especially sensitive to these compounds should avoid touching the stems at all times by wearing gloves when working with this plant.
If the skin rash wasn’t warning enough, it goes without saying that this plant should not be ingested. Keep it away from children and from curious pets that like to sniff around your flower beds.
Can I plant Phacelia campanularia in pots?
Desert Bluebells make great plants for pots. They don’t grow particularly wide and have a relatively shallow root system that makes them perfect for containers.
If you choose to go this route, it is imperative that you make your own soil mix. Regular potting soil will not drain well enough for these sand-loving desert plants. Either buy a specialized succulent or cactus mix that has the well-draining soil these plants prefer, or amend potting soil with plenty of sand and gravel for the best drainage.
If your pot only has one drainage hole, drilling a few more will also improve drainage. These holes should be equal distances apart to avoid the water pooling in one area of the pot.
Leave your pot in a full sun position for the majority of the day. As they can withstand dry soil for extended periods, they will not need to be watered often. Let rainfall deal with most of the plant’s watering needs and add additional water only in weeks of drought-like conditions or if the plant begins to droop and wilt.
What can I plant with Desert Bluebells?
The ideal companion for this plant is the California Poppy, Eschscholzia californica. These two plants grow next to each other in the wild, making them a perfect pairing in your garden too. They appreciate the same conditions and are roughly the same size. The yellowy-orange flowers also complement the vivid blue incredibly well, intensifying each other’s color.
They are also great companions for many other desert-loving plants, including succulents. They add great pops of color to succulent or rock gardens as they love the same conditions.
Since the climate they prefer is similar to Mediterranean weather, they are also great companions for other Mediterranean plants like lavender. Pair them together for carpets of blue and purple, or plant them under a few olive trees to fill in the gaps in the soil.
Will Desert Bluebells flower again?
Unfortunately not. These plants are annuals and will not flower after their initial season in spring. However, they do produce and spread seeds that grow exact replicas of the same plants.
If you want to grow Desert Bluebells again, simply leave them to spread their seeds and they will produce more flowers. You do not need to remove the old plants as they will die back on their own, but you can pull them out to give your bed a tidier appearance.
Can I use Phacelia campanularia in a bouquet?
The cute blue flowers are ideal for cut-flower bouquets. They may not last very long, but cutting them is one way to bring their beauty indoors, if only for a few days.
Be careful when cutting to avoid any skin rashes and always wear gloves when dealing with these plants. If you have any indoor pets, it’s best to stay away from using these in bouquets as it can cause the same adverse reaction.
Native wildflowers are a wonderful addition to any garden. They obviously look stunning, with colorful blooms popping up throughout spring and brightening your day with just a glance. But they are also great for the surrounding environment. Native wildflowers are water-wise, don’t require any additional products like fertilizers or pesticides to grow well, and provide flowers for the many pollinators looking for work in your area.
On top of that, they are also incredibly low-maintenance and prefer neglect over fuss. They can be planted in terrible rocky soil where few other plants grow, producing flowers and spreading happily without trouble.
But what makes Desert Bluebells one of the most special native wildflowers is their captivating color. Few flowers found in home gardens are truly blue, and many are either hybridized or genetically altered in some way to produce that blue color. Desert Bluebells are 100% naturally blue, a color only 10% of flowering plants have.
Take advantage of all these wonderful benefits by planting some Desert Bluebell seeds in your own garden.