Beauty in the Woods: Bluebells

Right now, in the UK, you can see swathes of blue among groups of trees and along the bottoms of hedges. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself in a bluebell wood. It’s one of the special sights of springtime and a precious part of the British countryside.

But not all bluebells are the same…and it’s not always easy to tell which are the true native British bluebells. The bluebell below is a Spanish bluebell, which you will find growing in many gardens. (These bluebells came from my own garden – I had to crop the picture quite tightly to remove some of the rather chewed-looking bells. I wonder what has been eating them…)

Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
A close-up of a Spanish bluebell, showing the arrangement of flowers on the stem.

So how do you tell the difference between the two types of bluebell? There are a few clues that should help. The Spanish bluebells hold their flowers on all sides of the stem and stand very upright, whereas the British bluebell’s flowers hang in an arch, mostly on just the one side of the stem. (However, the photograph below shows what appears to be an immature flower at the left-hand side of the picture. I’m assuming that it has yet to develop the characteristic arch.)

The flowers of the British bluebell are a darker colour and the bells are a slimmer and longer shape. The leaves are also slimmer (about 1.5cm or half an inch wide), while the leaves of the Spanish bluebell are twice that width. Additionally, our native bluebells have a sweet scent but there is none or little from the Spanish flowers.

Just to make identification difficult, the two plants hybridise very readily and the hybrids are becoming very common. There is a fear that these hybrids may take over from the less vigorous British bluebell and that over time the genes of the native flower will become diluted by the incomer. It would be a pity if that happens. Our native bluebell is a sign of ancient woodlands and a sea of these deep blue, scented flowers is a wonderful sight.

Bluebells growing among birch trees.
Bluebells growing among birch trees.