Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
Dear Readers, I thought that I’d said everything that I had to say on the subject of bluebells back in 2016, but it seems that I was wrong. As everyone seems to be turning to gardening if they’re lucky enough to have a bit of soil to play with, I am hearing some positively rabid reactions to ‘Spanish bluebells’ (not here on Bugwoman obviously). One poor lady was told to dig up and burn all the hybrid bluebells that she had in her garden, even though she loved them in their delicate shades of white, pink and pale blue. Other folk. have apparently been told to dig up these plants in woodland, even where there aren’t any native bluebells.
This isn’t really anyone in particular’s fault – back when I wrote my original piece, there was a fear that hybrid bluebells were going to ‘swamp’ our native ones. My impression then was that the biggest single risk to native bluebells was climate change and the impact that it would have on the ecosystems of woods, not to mention habitat destruction (HS2 anybody?). Furthermore, there was a lot of illicit digging up of bluebells, both to plant in the garden and to sell (although this is actually illegal). However, the thought of foreign invaders encroaching on our land and ravishing our native plants seemed to be a more romantic explanation.
First things first.
Native bluebells tend to be a much deeper blue in colour, the flowers have a ‘nodding’ habit, and the smell is absolutely gorgeous. If you are out walking, you can gaze into the heart of one of the bells and if the pollen is purest white, you are looking at a native. They don’t travel far and are an indicator of ancient woodland for that reason. When I re-read my original post I was reminded that I’d been to visit the bluebell wood close to my Aunt Hilary’s house in Somerset, and had been positively entranced by the spectacle. I have never seen a photo that does such a wood justice. As the UK is home to over 50% of all the native bluebells in the world, it would be a tragedy if they disappeared, for sure.
Secondly, there are Spanish bluebells. These are native to (as the name suggests) Spain, Portugal and North Africa, where the conditions are hotter and drier than in the UK. They are commonly planted in gardens, and in fact it is illegal to plant them in woodland or hedgerows (though, as I know from our local wood, people often cheerfully dump their plants in such places). They are more upright, paler coloured and have blue-green pollen, plus they have very little smell. However, the ‘pure’ Spanish bluebell is actually quite a rare plant.
What are much more common are the hybrids between these two species. They come in all shapes and sizes but tend to be midway between their parents in the shape of the ‘bell’. However, none are the deep blue of the native bluebell, and none (as far as I’m aware) have pure white pollen.
And so, what is the truth concerning the hybrid bluebell and its rampant habits? A recent study (published in 2019) involved planting Spanish and native bluebells next to one another in large numbers, and then standing back to see what would happen. As it turns out, the Spanish bluebells are much less fertile than the native ones: it was even thought that the Spanish bluebell ‘species’ might already be a a hybrid. Professor Pete Hollingsworth, Director of Science at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, had this to say:
“The greater fertility of the native British bluebell coupled with the huge numbers of individuals that exist in the wild means that it’s got considerable resilience against any threat from these introduced plants”.
So, it seems that the threat of all our bluebells turning into hybrids is overstated. My anecdotal impression is that non-native bluebells can often be seen on the edges of woody patches, in the cemetery for example, but they don’t penetrate into it: maybe they have a preference for brighter environments. At any rate, I suspect that a lot of non-native bluebells appear where native bluebells would find it too dry and exposed to survive, and that native bluebells specialise in the dark, damp heart of the wood.
Should we be careful? Of course. Native bluebells are extremely vulnerable to trampling, and this is thought to be an increased risk where people are looking for the perfect Instagram post (hopefully not at the moment however). As we know, bulbs build up their strength during the summer via photosynthesis (one reason why, however tempting, you shouldn’t tie the leaves of your daffodils into neat little knots). I have already mentioned habitat loss, bulb-stealing and climate change. But in some habitats I suspect that the choice is not between native bluebells and hybrids, but between some bluebells and none at all.
Let me know your experiences, and what you think.
Photo One bySchnobby / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)