Wednesday Weed – Bluebells Revisited

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.

Native bluebell – White pollen

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.

Photo One bySchnobby / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) (Photo One)

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.

Bluish-green pollen in what is probably a hybrid

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.

Hybrid bluebells from the cemetery.

Photo Credits

Photo One bySchnobby / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

 

 

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Bluebells Revisited

  1. Gail

    Is there any evidence to show whether native bees fail to recognise and/or can’t use the pollen from non-native species of flowers? If not, then it seems to me that any flowers (not treated with pesticides) are good, so long as they don’t have an impact on threatened native species or land use. And with climate change, I suppose that there will be species creep in any case? Some of the risk might also be to do with the wholesale imports of non-native species without some form of quarantine – I think that’s what damaged our native elms? In the meantime, I’m enjoying all the bluebells – has it been a particularly good year or is it just that we have more time to share our photos?

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Most bees seem to be profoundly unperturbed (in the UK at least) about whether a plant is native or not – think of all the honey and bumblebees flocking to feed on buddleia, lavender, sunflowers and even Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam. I think the problem comes more with highly-bred garden flowers that are bred for their looks – bees will feed on single-flowered dahlias, for example, but can’t access the nectar and pollen in the complicated double flowers. It is a complex issue though, especially in places where a particular bee species and a particular flower have evolved over millenia to fit together. As far as bluebells go, they flower so early that I imagine they are largely pollinated by bumblebees (who, being originally adapted to life on the tundra are able to warm up and get going faster than many other bees), and they are probably responsible for the development of the hybrid bluebell in the first place! Yes also to more adequate quarantine procedures for plants in garden centres and from nurseries – this is probably how ash dieback got into the country (though Dutch Elm disease was imported with timber rather than live plants, your point is still 100% valid).

      Reply
  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I have a question (or 2), if I may… If the native and Spanish bluebells are considered blue or purple or violet (or whatever) then how do the hybrids become white (as in your last picture)? Is that common? The next time I’m in a ‘Bluebell’ wood or indeed spot a bluebell, I’ll certainly be taking more notice for sure!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      There are naturally white native bluebells, Mike – I don’t think there are any pink ones though, so pink ones are always hybrid as far as I know.

      Reply
      1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

        Ah – OK. I was confused then, because you said “Native bluebells tend to be a much deeper blue in colour” and then the picture of the white ones said Hybrid… At least I know now! Many thanks for the answer.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I have been to Bohinj, and absolutely loved it – I remember seeing a smooth snake crossing the path, and it was so peopled compared to a lot of Austria. The flower festival looks amazing. Some day, eh….

      Reply
  3. Anne

    I remember being excited the first time I saw bluebells in a wooded area in England – they formed such an important part of the tapestry of books I had read as a child – and still enjoy the photographs people have been posting of bluebells this season. Your comment about the white pollen is very interesting.

    Reply

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