There are many things which you need to know about bluebells. First the difference between good bluebells and bad bluebells. Good bluebells have droopy heads, their flowers are to one side of the plant and they have a stronger, sweeter scent than the bad ones. Their botanical name is Hyacinthoides non-scripta. You find them in woodland throughout Britain; in fact, nowhere else in the world do bluebells bloom in such profusion: almost half the global population of Common bluebell is found in the British Isles.
Because the bluebell multiplies both by offshoots from its bulbs and by setting seeds, it can become dominant in woodland in early spring. The shoots emerge as early as January although it is April before flowers appear and late April before they are at their best. Last year, because of the sustained cold weather, in the coldest winter for 30 years, the bluebells’ arrival was delayed by several weeks. It likes coppiced woodland and humidity. It doesn’t like being stood on, being water-logged, or competition from rough grass.
Spanish invasion: ugly threat
The bad bluebells are mostly hybrids with the Spanish bluebellHyacinthoides hispanica which may have escaped from gardens. You find them in more open spaces rather than in woodland. They can flourish in places where the good ones cannot, so are a threat. These hybrids were first clearly identified in Britain in the 1960’s. Quite how and when these aliens got into the British countryside remains a bit of a mystery.
‘It seems very likely that most of the aliens out there have been planted or dumped, and that repeated deliberate introductions are still the main route,’ says ecologist Deborah Kohn, who recently completed a comprehensive survey of a representative slice of the British countryside.
But direct competition for space isn’t a problem at the moment only 10 per cent of native bluebells were found growing alongside non-natives. Cross-fertilisation of the natives and aliens appears to be a serious worry, however. The survey found that more than 40 per cent of natives grew within about a kilometre of aliens, close enough to pose a significant risk of hybridisation.
If you live near native bluebell woods, it would not be sensible to grow Spanish bluebells in your garden because of the threat if represents to the native species and it is of course illegal to dig up native bluebells.
Believe it if you like
Even knowlegable botanists who know their non-scripta from their hispanica may not know is that non-scripta, meaning not written, refers to a Greek myth. When Hyacinthus died, a flower sprang up from his grave. The tears of his lover, the god Apollo, falling on the plant, left markings on the petals which read “Alas!” There are no markings on Hyacinthoides non-scripta.
If you hear a bluebell ringing, you will die unless you are a fairy.
And if you can turn a flower inside out, you’ll be a great lover.
Bluebell Woods to visit
Of course, you can find bluebells almost anywhere, but for great displays in fine surroundings, why not visit some of the Trust’s reserves like: