English Or Spanish Bluebells

Bluebells at Sunnyhurst Wood

I’m very fond of bluebells. I’ve been teased for smiling away tears when, spotting two or three in flower in the USA, my mind turned to the hundreds of thousands I was missing back at home.

My first memory of bluebells was seeing a mass of flowers covering a hillside in Sunnyhurst Wood, in my home county, Lancashire. My Dad – the kind of person who’d bring home owl pellets to show his kids what the bird had been eating – would have known they were in flower and had taken us out exploring. 

I must have seen them many times before that. My Mum and Dad, both nature lovers, took my sister and me out, pretty much as soon as we could walk, to roam the local moors, parks and woods. But memory is a strange thing, so for me, bluebells are irretrievably woven in with that day.

Before I go any further, I ought to explain the difference between the native, English bluebells and the Spanish ones, both commonly found growing in the mass these days in the UK. If you are familiar with the differences you might like to skip this part.

English bluebell (left) or Spanish bluebell (right)
English bluebell (left) Spanish bluebell (right)

How to identify English bluebells

English Bluebells

English bluebells (Hyancinthoides non-scripta), our native variety, have slender, tubular bells of a deep, purple blue colour. Each petal has a deeper central stripe, but it’s not easy to spot the paler, translucent edges unless a petal is removed from the flower. The petals turns backwards in a curl giving a dainty effect. The pollen is creamy coloured.

The stems (called scapes) are long and slender, tapering gradually to the tip. Flowers are held on one side of the scape only, so it overbalances into a graceful bow, like a shepherd’s crook. Each scape has eight or so flowers towards the tip. The leaves are narrow – about 10mm.

English bluebells have a distinctive, sweet, warm and complex scent that for me has a lightness about it – in quality not strength. They thrive best in the shade provided after they have flowered (in late April, early May) by deciduous trees in woodland, the more ancient, the better, but are also found in hedgerows.

How to identify Spanish bluebells

Spanish bluebell in a garden

Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are sturdy plants, taller, and with broader leaves (about 20mm). They are happy in a broad range of conditions, in sun as well as shade, and are regarded primarily as garden plants.

Pale blue flowers are produced more generously –  25 flowers or more – held all around the strong, upright stems. Every petal has a deeper blue stripe down the centre. The flowers are an open bell shape, and the petals have a more gentle curl. The pollen is blue or pale green.

It is often said that Spanish bluebells have little or no scent but the ones in my garden are fragrant enough for me to notice their scent whenever I leave or enter the house, which suggests they may be hybrids. For me, their scent seems more floral, and less mysterious than English bluebells, but still very attractive.

The two species would be easy to distinguish using these guidelines if you somebody gave you examples of both to compare. I’d contend that drawings of bluebells being used as fairies’ bonnets must be the Spanish type as the fairies’ heads would be too broad to fit the narrow English ones (just saying!).

Bluebells spread by multiplication of the bulbs and by seed. The Spanish ones cross readily with the English and reproduce faster. Problems arise because the hybrids between the two forms are fertile too, producing abundant seed. Hybrids are so variable that they can be tricky even for experts to identify without DNA testing, which makes it hard to rogue them out of native populations.

I like all kinds of bluebells, including those that many people view with alarm and displeasure these days – the Spanish ‘newcomers’ (it’s worth mentioning that the cat is well and truly out of the bag as the Spanish form was introduced to the UK around 250 years ago).

I don’t know who first planted the Spanish ones in my garden. It could have been my father, and my heart nostalgically wants to believe it was, but my head reminds me that he was a keen naturalist, so it’s more likely to have been one of my first gardening experiments. I remember buying various types of bulbs from a local market in those early days.

Whether the experiment turned out well or not is a matter of perspective. It’s always good for a new gardener to start with something that will live almost despite them, without the need for fancy techniques or particular attention. If longevity is important, these colourful bulbs have flourished in my small garden for 25 years or more, stealthily multiplying. They seem likely to last another 25, unless it’s possible for them to physically crowd each other to death in such a confined space.

Spanish bluebells at dusk

At their peak, between mid to late spring, they look splendid. This picture of them was taken in early evening light which has lent them a pinkish, purplish hue. Only a harder heart than my own could deny their fresh, confident beauty.

The downside is that they have pretty much smothered out every other bulb that arrived in my garden before or after. My garden is home to a plant that, in theory at least, threatens the wild population of bulbs including many hundreds of thousands of English bluebells a couple of miles away in Sunnyhurst Wood. Just as the burly grey squirrel has almost driven the red squirrel out of English woods, we’ve often been told the Spanish bluebell will eventually swamp the English, if it gets among them.

A wood carpeted with English bluebells is a wonderful sight, far more magical than my humble domestic bliss. But my dilemma is another example of how much easier it is to say we want to protect the planet than actually take steps to do it.

Ought I to dig up all my Spanish bluebells (which would just about break my heart)? Would the wild population be any safer?

If I did set out to eradicate them – I’m sure it would take several years – I’d have to dispose of the bulbs in a safe, environmentally sensitive fashion, or they could do more harm than if left where they are. The advice is that the leaves should be trimmed off, and the bulbs left for several months to dry out completely so they shrivel and die.

There are many streets of houses between us, so no direct wildlife corridor. I’ve noticed many of my neighbours are growing Spanish bluebells too – the blue, pink and white kinds. It may be better for us to grow these than to encourage trade in the now protected wild species. And you could argue that the Spanish and hybrid forms are better garden plants.

Bluebells at Dorothy Clive Garden

I’ve seen both the English and Spanish forms growing in highly regarded English gardens, albeit in different areas – at the Dorothy Clive Garden, shown above, for example. They have far better horticultural credentials than me, yet they don’t seem unduly concerned.

And a leisurely wander through Sunnyhurst Wood a week or so ago reassured me that the wild population is also thriving, for now, even though there are Spanish bluebells in the neighbouring houses. The more I look at bluebells, the easier it is to see there is greater variation than the accepted categories suggest, especially in gardens. If I did not know better, I would imagine that the English bluebells are changing the character of the Spanish ones, rather than the other way around.

English Bluebells at Sunnyhurst Wood

More reading

Learn more about the interaction between Spanish bluebells and native populations and why scientists are now suggesting that in wild populations, English bluebells tend to win out over time in this BBC article.

Find out where bluebells are and add your UK sightings on the bluebell map.

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