Bluebells – close your eyes for a minute and picture the sight and scent of an English bluebell wood in May…
The dappled shade of a woodland floor covered with nodding flower heads covering the shades of blue from pale sky through to deep violet blue. A perfumed carpet humming with bees.
A sea of flowers, with waves of maritime blue as a gentle breeze shakes those pendulous blooms.
Regularly voted as Britain’s’ favourite flower, the Bluebell grows in woodlands, on woodland edges, on grass verges of roads and in our gardens. Although it grows in more open habitats where the weather is damp, on the west side of the country, the bluebell is predominantly a shade-lover.
So, after writing an Introduction to Woodland Habitats in Your Garden last week, it seemed an opportune time to consider bluebells in more detail.
We think of bluebells in an English woodland, but they bloom in a wave beginning in milder southern Britain, leaping across to Ireland and back to the north of Scotland. No wonder then that approximately half the world’s population of bluebells is found here.
Bluebells – what’s in a name?
Hyacinthoides non scripta, the spring flowering bluebell, is also known as the wild hyacinth. Like the garden Hyacinth, it has sweetly scented flowers and is a bulbous perennial. The bluebell is in the genus Hyacinthus, the non scripta distinguishes it from the classical hyacinth.
This current botanical Latin name, also known as the binomial name, for the Bluebell was last amended in 1991. However, the name changed three times during the 1980s. From being known as Scilla nutans, the name became Endymion non scriptus. This was altered to Scilla non scripta before arriving at Hyacinthoides non scripta in 1991.
Endymion non scriptus, a previous name for the bluebell, has links with Greek mythology.
In one version of the legend, Endymion was a handsome shepherd who was in love with and loved by Selene, the moon goddess. When Zeus, king of the gods gave him a choice of destinies, he chose sleep in order to retain his youth and gain immortality. Not quite sure how this ties in with Selene and Endymion having many children, but that’s gods for you!
A different version makes Endymion an astronomer and the first human to observe the moon’s cycle. According to Pliny the Elder  this would account for his being the lover of Selene the moon goddess. But whether shepherd or astronomer, Endymion would be out at night observing the sky. And so would have had the opportunity to see and be seen by Selene.
The Scottish bluebell, also known as the Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, is a summer flowering plant. The common name of ‘Scottish bluebell’ is a fairly recent change for the plant. The spring flowering bluebell is commonly known as ‘bluebell’ throughout the UK and Ireland.
Bluebells – Native species vs Spanish invaders
Not since the Spanish Armada in 1588 has Britain been under such a threat. Well, that’s one perspective, certainly, and possibly not untrue. The main issue is not just that the Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is more vigorous than our native.
The real worry is that crossbreeding easily occurs. Some of the resulting hybrids, Hyacinthoides non scripta x Hyacinthoides hispanica, or Hyacinthoides x massartiana, are less easy to distinguish from the native.
A simplified table of differences –
British Native Bluebell
- narrow leaves, c ½ inch or 1.5cm wide
- has flowers at the top of the stem
- flowers droop to one side
- flowers have a narrow bell shape, tips fold back
- scented flowers
- flowers are usually a deep violet blue, with some lighter shades
- occasional a white sport is found amongst the blue flowers
- pollen is pale cream colour
- wide leaves, over an inch or 3-4cm wide
- has flowers all-round the stem
- upright stem
- flowers are conical, bell shaped, with spread out tips
- pale blue flowers
- white and pink forms found quite frequently
- very little, if any, scent
- pollen is usually blue in colour
- whole range of intermediate characteristics from the above two
- often abundant in gardens
- in woods near to urban areas
With some hybrids, as they look so similar to the native, that it seems that DNA testing is the only means of establishing their true identity.
There are various scientific studies being carried out to evaluate the threat to the native bluebell from both the Spanish species and hybrids.
If you have non-native bluebells in your garden, especially if you live near bluebell woods, please consider digging them up and replacing with the native species. You will benefit too, the native British bluebell is a prettier flower and has a delicate scent for you to enjoy. And of course bees, butterflies and other pollinators will thank you. You don’t even need a woodland garden, read on for some ideas.
Bluebells – the legal bit
In the UK, Hyacinthoides non scripta is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Trade in wild bulbs and seeds has been illegal since 1998.
The bluebell is not protected in the Republic of Ireland.
Bluebells – medical and other attributes
Did you know that you can use the sap from bluebell stems and bulbs as a glue? Historically it was used in book binding and arrow-making.
They were used to create a styptic, which would stop bleeding and create a sort of plaster across small wounds. (More glue). However, the sap can be a skin irritant. Indeed, all parts of the bluebell contain glycosides, so try not to eat them!
To finish on a positive note, the flowers contain rich nectar and so they are a good plant for pollinating bees and butterflies.
Bluebells – Habitats and Gardens
A predominantly woodland species, their presence is often used to indicate ancient woodland. The bluebell stems, for all they look soft, are able to push through the accumulated leaf litter on the woodland floor.
In the garden, Hyacinthoides non scripta can work well in: –
Natural or unmanaged woodland
Bluebells prefer a slightly acid soil. Although not the acid understorey of a conifer wood; that they dislike.
They may thrive in a more open habitat in the western, wetter area of the UK. For example, under bracken on coastal cliffs.
In a garden situation, whether that is in a woodland habitat or as part of a mixed border planting, the requirements are the same. Plenty of moisture in winter and spring, but not waterlogged soil. Shade in summer. If you have no trees, they may be happy planted in a shady corner, with herbaceous perennials to grow over during the summer. You could try Geranium macrorrhizum or Epimedium.
The important thing to remember is to purchase your bluebells from a reputable nursery. That way you’ll know that they’re the native species and not dug up illegally.
Richard Mabey in his book Flora Britannica has a lovely anecdote about bluebells. He tells of seeing a contractor’s sign – ‘bluebell topsoil’ – along the A41 in 1994. And yes, it had been stripped off, retained and re-used. The following spring the roadside was awash with bluebells.
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