Bluebells - Setting the Scene

Bluebells are a quintessentially British species, which historically carpeted our woodland floors. When I say 'bluebells' I am of course referring to the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which is our only native bluebell species, what's more the UK is considered a stronghold for this species. English Bluebells are considered an ancient woodland indicator, that is because they spread at an agonisingly slow rate (cm/year), and suffer badly from tramping, ergo a carpeted woodland has taken a long time developing to be as such. Beech woodlands like ours are particularly associated with bluebells as they can cope under the heavy shade of beech trees where other plants cannot. 

Despite being our only native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta, it is not the only species of bluebell that is found here, we now have three! As with many of our invasive species, the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) was first thought to be introduced by the Victorians as a garden plant. 

Perhaps a remnant of our colonial past, the United Kingdom has always had awful (I mean it) biosecurity, with many invasive species brought home by our forebears which then wreak havoc in our natural environment. The Spanish Bluebell is no exception, escaping from the confines of gardens (worse still, sometimes being intentionally planted out) and now found living freely in wild spaces. Unfortunately English and Spanish Bluebells can cross-pollinate creating viable offspring (hyrbrids).

What this means is that it isn't just a case of Spanish Bluebells creeping out of gardens (which is bad enough), their genetic information is spread as far as a bee can fly (around 3 miles if you are interested). producing progeny that is neither truly English nor truly Spanish, a new species of Hybrid Bluebells (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Hybrids generally have more vigour than either constituent species, this is the case for the hybrid bluebells. Hybrids also share a blend of the characteristics of the two parent species, which can sometimes make identifying them tricky.

What can be done?

In an urban setting there is only so much we can do and we probably will never be able to have a totally genetically pure population. What we can do is select for the native genes by removing plants that can be identified as being non-native. This is something Wild Warley is looking to do. Starting with areas close to our 'native' populations we will be removing and destroying non-native bluebells. Since 2020 we have been planting out native bluebells, particularly in areas we have been working to restore. This practice we will continue to do every Spring. We are also looking at collecting local seed to try and propagate our own locally sourced native bluebells. 

In order to accomplish this we need to be able to spot a hybrid.

Spotting a Hybrid

Hybrids have characteristics of both parent species, and the exact composition lies on a spectrum. That means to be able to effectively identify a hybrid we must pay attention to a number of characteristics as they may fail to present something concrete based off just one. 

A general rule of thumb is:

  • English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta): Are more dainty, with narrow leaves, deep violet flowers and a nodding head.
  • Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana): Tend to be larger, with intermediate leaf width and very variable flower colour.
  • Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica): Tend to be large, with a wide leaf, pale blue flowers on a straight stem. 

This is incredibly simplistic, it is for that reason I have created a much more in-depth guide to help you more confidently be able to identify a hybrid: Bluebells - How to Spot a Hybrid 

Doing your bit

We can all make positive changes to help protect our native wildlife:

  • Where possible, select native varieties of plants in your garden. - Many reputable garden centres no longer sell Spanish Bluebells.
  • Please keep to paths whenever possible, soil compaction and trampling kills plants. 
  • Never plant garden varieties of anything out in wild spaces.
  • Support the Trust in our aims to restore our woodland plants through our Buy a Bluebell campaign. 
  • Never dump green waste in green spaces - it can, and does spread plants.  

If you liked using this resource and would like to see more like this why not support Warley Woods Community Trust by making a donation? We are a community-run park and rely kind donations to be able to help maintain our Warley Woods!

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