The beauty of bluebells

© Josh Raper / Conservation Media

Not many wildlife spectacles can beat the overwhelming beauty of swathes of violet bluebells under the pale green of newly opened leaves.

It can be argued that the British Isles are the true home of the bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) as, although the species is native to the mild, damp reaches of Atlantic Europe, including north-western Spain, Belgium and France, it reaches its highest densities here. Indeed, the UK is home to almost half the world’s population. Although a relatively common sight in Britain, woodland ground flora dominated by bluebells never loses its power to take the breath away.

The bluebell is widely regarded as Britain’s favourite flower and has been adopted as the symbol of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. It produces a faint honey smell and the colour of its nodding one-sided inflorescence varies from pure white through grey lilac to pale blue or dark cobalt.

This bulbous perennial is extremely well adapted to deciduous woodland. The young shoots can penetrate a thick layer of leaf litter, flowering before the canopy closes in late spring. It is visited by a range of insects, although mainly pollinated by the bumblebee. The bluebell is included in the list of ancient woodland indicator plants.

Away from woodland, it is commonly found on hedge banks and, in western regions, in more open habitats such as seaside cliffs and pastures. These are sometimes, but not always, relics of former woodlands.

However, these spectacular annual carpets of flowers could be at risk from a foreign invader. The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), a stouter, more upright species, has become widely naturalised from gardens.

Fertile hybrids between the Spanish and the native species are now spreading through the wild. This hybrid is tougher and more adaptable than our delicate native and threatens to wipe it out. Conservationists are working to stop the spread of both intruders and we can also do our bit by buying only native bluebells for the garden and not dumping garden waste in the countryside.

The well known naturalist Peter Marren said, “no woodland scene has the power to move the heart more than a bluebell wood” - It must be uplifting for those still lucky enough to experience such a spectacle during their daily exercise in these difficult times. For the rest of us, being able to experience next year's bluebells will make them all the more beautiful.  

How to identify native bluebells

Native bluebells:
    •    Have cream/white pollen
    •    Have a flowers on one side of the step creating the classic droop
    •    Have only deep blue flowers with edges that curl back
    •    Have a sweet honey-like aroma
    •    Have narrow leaves, around 1.5cm wide

Spanish bluebells:
    •    Have blue pollen
    •    Have a straight stem with flowers all the way round
    •    Can have pale blue, pink or white flowers with splayed tips
    •    Have almost no scent
    •    Have broad leaves up to 3cm wide

The two species can hybridise so you may find plants with mixed characteristics.

Native bluebell

Spanish bluebell

This article was originally written by Surrey Wildlife Trust Botanist Claire Gibbs for Surrey Life magazine in April 2017 and has been edited.