Bluebell woods – 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.
We think of bluebell woods as being found in English woodlands. 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 are officially known as Hyacinthoides non scripta. For an insight into their changing botanical Latin name read our article on Bluebells.
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.
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. How many of you knew they would tolerate all that salt air?
Please, when you are walking through bluebellwoods with your dogs, keep them under close control or on their lead. You wouldn’t want them to inadvertently break off all those bluebell flowers, now would you! Oh, and the same goes for young children. (Well, maybe not the bit about the lead…) And as for adults, remember to keep to designated paths through the wood. Even when the bluebells are first sending up their leaves and after flowering, when those same leaves are generating food to feed next year’s bluebell flowers.
Bluebell Woods – 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.
Bluebell Woods in Your Garden
In the garden, Hyacinthoides non scripta can work well in: –
- Natural or unmanaged woodland
- Managed woodland
- Woodland edge
In a garden situation, whether that is in a woodland habitat or as part of a mixed border planting, the requirements are the same as for the flowers growing in Bluebell woods. 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.
Bluebell woods and England in the month of May – bliss!
And you can grow them in a woodland habitat in your own garden, as part of your shady ornamental flower border or in a wildlife friendly garden. If you would like help with designing your special bluebell woods garden, get in touch
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