Every year at the end of April/ beginning of May we make a kind of pilgrimage to the local woods to look with joy at one of the classic images of springtime: Bluebells. And by bluebells here, I mean Hyacinthoides non-scripta*, not Pulmonaria or Campanula or Mertensia. What we really want to see are thick carpets of violet-blue, nodding flowers in dappled sunlight. Nearly always we have to wear wellies, because bluebells like it damp and often the skies are grey with April showers. This year we were fairly lucky.
Bluebells are native to the western parts of Europe, but are at their greatest densities in the British Isles. In fact, half of the world’s population of bluebells grow here in the UK. They favour broadleaved woodland, but can also be found along hedgerows and in fields. If you don’t know where to find some, then the Wildlife Trust website, National Trust website and Woodland Trust website all have bluebell wood searches that you can use to locate your nearest hotspot.
Bluebells are part of the national psyche, they often tops polls as the nation’s favourite flower. As a child I remember coming back from family walks at my Grandma’s with bunches of the wonderful scented flowers to present to her. Outside of your own garden, this kind of picking would be frowned on now. H. non-scripta is a protected species under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and since 1998 it has been illegal for anyone to collect native bluebells from the wild for sale or for landowners to dig them up for sale.
Bluebells tend to flower and leaf early before the woodland canopy closes in late spring. They are often used as an indicator species to identify ancient woodland. Young shoots are able to penetrate through a thick layer of leaf litter and the bulbs have self-tapping roots; when these roots contract, they draw the bulbs down into deeper layers of the soil (10–12 cm) where there is more moisture. Bluebell flowers are rich in pollen and nectar, and are chiefly pollinated by bumblebees.
Interestingly, if you do a web search for bluebells, the RHS website pops up offering advice about dealing with them as weeds. They suggest that in a garden situation both native bluebell and Spanish bluebells (H. hispanica) can spread rapidly, via underground runners and new bulbs. The two kinds of bluebell often hybridize and can seed freely. Bulbs can survive in garden compost heaps for long periods and the plants are strongly resistant to weedkillers. So if you do need to get rid of some plants, then the advice is to dig them out carefully, place in a black plastic bag and leave for a year before composting. Now that I have looked at the bluebells in our front garden I am convinced that they are hybrids, the flower are pale, wide and open even if the petal tips are reflexed. So my teddy is holding an imposter!
The differences between our native and the Spanish bluebells are clear:
- The native bluebell, H. non-scripta, has sweetly-scented, violet-blue, narrow flowers with reflexed petal tips and cream-white pollen. The flowers tend to appear on one side of a stem that nods to one side.
- The Spanish bluebell, H. hispanica, has unscented, pale blue, wide flowers with slightly-flared tips and blue/green pollen. The flowers appear to stick out all around a stiff upright stem.
Hybrids are more difficult to identify, given that they are somewhere between the two.
Finally, a fun fact about bluebells: Bluebell bulbs were crushed to provide starch for the ruffs of Elizabethan collars and sleeves.
*Carl Linnaeus described Hyacinthoides non-scripta in 1753 as a species in the genus Hyacinthus. The specific epithet non-scriptus transferred the species to the genus Scilla, and then in 1849 was transferred it to the genus Endymion (now a synonym of Hyacinthoides); it is still widely known as “Scilla non-scripta” or “Endymion non-scriptus”.