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.

45 Replies to “English Or Spanish Bluebells”

  1. The native bluebell woods have been better than ever this year,we are so lucky to have them. I have noticed that wherever bluebells grow near houses they are always Spanish or hybrids. I worry about our beautiful native bluebells too but the Spanish ones are so firmly established in my garden that I can’t get rid of them. But you are right they are lovely and great for picking.

    1. I’m glad you understand the dilemma so well. I have often said that if I dig in my garden, I’ll always find at least one bulb and at least one worm in any trowel full of soil, usually more.

  2. Here in Ireland we have Hyancinthoides non-scripta too. Like in the UK Spanish bluebells are regularly planted here in gardens, parks etc. I sympathise with your dilemma. If it was me and they were in the garden I would probably keep them. I have gathered seeds from some native ones and am waiting patiently for them to flower!

    1. I imagine we call them English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish depending on where we live. I hope you don’t have to wait too long for yours to reach flowering size.

      1. Some are either three or four years old and I thought they would flower this year, but I think I will have to wait till 2018!

        1. At least you know they’re worth the wait. When you’ve grown something from seed, you’ll always be more attached to it. I’d hate to be a tree peony breeder though and have to wait a decade or so to see the first flower.

  3. Lovely photos, the bluebells are a gorgeous colour. My friend round the corner has a clump of them which has seemingly suddenly appeared in her garden from nowhere – to me, bluebells have always been just bluebells but now thanks to your description I’ll be able to tell which variety she’s got 🙂

    1. They are very evocative for me too. Whenever I hear someone say they only like repeat flowering plants, I always think ‘but what about bluebells?’ Once flowering plants can sometimes be the most dramatic of all.

  4. Thank you for this information. I learned something. I grow the Spanish bluebells only because the English bluebells wouldn’t survive in our heat. Now that you’ve written about the English variety and have said they are fragrant, I feel a bit envious. I love anything that smells good!

    1. Fragrance always adds an extra dimension. English bluebells like our damp, coolish climate – you could say they’re a great consolation for not having more hot, sunny days.

  5. They are both beautiful. The native and non-native conversation can become really heated. I am trying to plant native as I add plants and garden beds to my New York garden as I am trying to help more pollinators and there is so little here that isn’t sprayed or treated in some way. I walked by a bunny chewing on some of the clover along side the house and at least I know it is safe for it to eat…..Michelle

    1. That’s a very good feeling. As we’ve had very active plant collectors in England for centuries, it’s not always as easy to distinguish native plants from non-native. If someone was to work out which plants were native to the UK and which weren’t, then tried to ban us from growing everything else, there’d be a rebellion.

  6. I miss English bluebells here in the Alsace and have planted some in my garden, but I doubt very much I will live to the great age needed to see them carpet the ground as in a real English wood.
    Nice to have found your blog as our interets are so similar!

    1. I don’t really know how long it takes for a carpet to form – Murtagh’s Meadow has been growing some wild ones (called Irish bluebells where she lives) from seed for 3 to 4 years and is still eagerly awaiting flowers. But if you’re like me, it will only take a few to bring a broad smile to your face.

  7. I worry when I notice the Spanish bluebell beginning to establish itself in native woodland. I heard a dreadful tale the other day. A woman in a village not far from here decided to increase the bluebell population in the nearby wood, and took it upon herself to go to a garden centre, buy, and plant them. They were Spanish bluebells. Slowly but surely they are pushing the native specimens out. Apparently she’s unrepentant….

    1. That story makes me wince. It’s sad all round because I’m sure she thought what she was doing was for the best. She may say she’s unrepentant, but I imagine she won’t be doing it again in a hurry. It takes a supernaturally light touch to right nature.

  8. I am wondering if I’ve ever even seen a bluebell. What an incredible specimen of Nature’s incomparable imagination! The saga of native vs invasive must be taken seriously, but I doubt I could dig up such beauties. And it’s a good thing I didn’t have a mouthful of coffee when I got to “just saying” — it would have been messy. One more thing: Sunnyhurst Wood — what a lovely name. Thank you for these gorgeous blues; we don’t see it much in the sky these days.

    1. If I was choosing something now, I doubt I’d plant the Spanish type, despite all the pleasure they bring me, but ignorance can be bliss. Which reminds me, you inspired me to look up ‘hurst’ which apparently means a wood or wooded rise – and is tautological.

  9. I think so long as you are not near to a native colony they will do no harm in our gardens. I think a big problem could be when gardens are cleared and waste is dumped in the countryside.

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