‘The blue bell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air;
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.’
- The Blue Bell by Emily Jane Bronte
This gentle poem sums up the beauty of the bluebell spectacular gracing British woods in spring. These vast swathes of blue are found nowhere else in the world and are a treat for humans and wildlife alike. In fact, the UK is home to half the world’s population of our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta.
After the last ice age, trees and plants began to recolonise the British Isles across the land bridge that linked us to mainland Europe. Eventually sea levels, raised by the melting ice, immersed this and severed our connection. The bluebell was one species that succeeded in reaching us, but many did not. This helps explain the diversity of Europe’s spring woodland flowers and why ours are dominated by the beautiful bluebell.
Today, native bluebells are not the only ones to be found in our woods. The more vigorous Spanish bluebell was introduced to British gardens in the late 1600’s and by the early 1900’s had escaped, or been carelessly thrown away by gardeners, and was found to be growing in the wild. It outcompetes our native species and the two can crossbreed – hybrids vary in character.
There are a few simple ways to tell the difference between the two pure species:
Native – Hyacinthoides non-scripta:
Usually darker blue or white,
Bells on one side of the stem,
Stems tend to bend or curve over,
Bell of the flower is narrow,
Flower petals curl up and back at the ends.
Spanish – Hyacinthoides hispanica:
Usually paler blue, but can also be pink, mauve or white,
Bells all over the stem,
Stems are more upright,
Bell of the flower is broader,
Flower petals flick out rather than curl,
Leaves are broader.
Bluebells are entwined in British history. They are mentioned in poems, stories and mythology. Folklore says fairies use bluebells to entice and trap passersby, especially children. This is not so unbelievable given the charm of bluebell carpets, it is easy to get lost in their beauty. So, if you do nothing else this spring, do go out and enjoy one of the wonders of the British Isles. Our VisitWoods website can help you find your nearest bluebell wood.
Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser