Vivid carpets of violet unravelling across the forest floor have long been a beloved herald of a British spring. Consistently voted the nation’s favourite flower, British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are fragrant and lovely—and they are also in danger of being outcompeted in their own home. Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) may be just as lovely as our own native flowers, but unfortunately they’ve caused nothing but trouble since the 1960s when they first escaped the bounds of gardens and made it into the wild British countryside.
“There is a silent eloquence, In every wild bluebell ,That fills my softened heart with bliss, That words could never tell.” ~ Anne Brontë
The issue arises when introduced Spanish bluebells interbreed freely with our native bluebells, creating hybrid plants that can reproduce more quickly than their parents. Concerned researchers have shown that large sections of woodlands and urban areas which once contained only British bluebells are now dominated by hybrids—and if the trend of hybridisation continues, we may ultimately lose the precious uniqueness of our own native plants.
But which one is which? The good news is that even the humble nature-lover can learn to distinguish between the species! The organisation Plantlife offers an excellent guide on their website, but here are the key differences to look for:
- Stems: Native bluebells only have flowers on one side of the stem which causes their distinctive droop, while Spanish bluebells stand upright with flowers on both sides of the stem.
- Flowers: Native bluebells have long, narrow flowers that only curl back at the very ends of their petals, while Spanish bluebells are bell-shaped with widely spread-out petals. Also, native bluebells have cream-coloured pollen and a sweet scent; in Spanish bluebells the pollen is blue, and they have no scent.
- Leaves: Native bluebells have narrow leaves (1-1.5 cm) while Spanish bluebells have slightly broader leaves (3 cm).
Of course the real challenge lies in identifying the hybrids themselves, which can borrow and mix traits from either parent species. Yet with a little practice and an eye for detail, it can be done!
What can you do
So what can you, concerned British citizen who appreciates our beautiful native bluebells, do to help save the country’s favourite flower? There are several steps you can take to do your part for bluebell conservation:
- Check the species of bluebells you purchase to make sure they are Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Even if they have the right name they may still be mislabeled, so if you have any doubt consider asking your local garden centre to be sure!
- Dispose of bulbs carefully. If you choose to remove any non-native bluebells from your garden—a good idea, especially if there are natives in the wild nearby—make sure the bulbs are dried out and dead before composting them, and never dump bulbs in the wild.
- Record sightings of Spanish bluebells or potential hybrids right here with ERCCIS! There is enormous power in citizen science, and keeping a record of when Spanish bluebells first appear in an area can greatly assist researchers tracking the spread and speed of hybridisation.
Violet fields of nodding bluebells are without a doubt one of the most gorgeous sights of springtime. Whenever you are out on your strolls this spring and soaking in the beauty of bluebells, remember to take a few seconds to observe and take note of any sneaky Spanish invaders. You’ll be contributing to the important conservation efforts of our precious native species, and besides—it’s always beneficial to your health and wellbeing to stop and smell the flowers!
Article by Caitlin Fikes, ERCCIS volunteer and University of Exeter student and photos by Niki Clear