Beauty in the Woods: Bluebells

 

Flowers of British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) with the flowers all hanging on the same side of the stem.

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.

27 thoughts on “Beauty in the Woods: Bluebells

    1. For me, not so easily, because I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so scents have to be quite strong before I notice.. They are supposed to be well-scented, so if you catch them at the right time, I would think so. (It’s a while since I’ve been in a really big bluebell wood, so I’m trying to remember!)

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      1. Thanks for encouraging me to continue with my recent blog. It was interesting to read about the hybridised bluebells on your blog; I’ve seen evidence of this in South Glos’ – I’ve also seen the drooping form of the original in isolated places here too. It’s important that we recognise changes in our flora. Thank you for sharing this.

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      2. It seems that there’s an awful lot of change in flora and wildlife going on. Climate change doesn’t help. I hope that we’ll find ways to reverse some of the changes…

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    1. Thank you Indira! Yes, both are pretty and the Spanish bluebells find it easier to cope in sunny gardens. 🙂

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  1. I was expecting to find a very different flower than your beautiful Bluebells. As a child growing up in rural southeastern Pennsylvania in the USA, I spent many happy times at my Gram’s over 200 acre farm. In the Spring the fields below her farmhouse were awash with a sea of blue tiny flowers that we called Bluebells. We were permitted to wander the fields gathering as many of them as our hands could hold and returning to place them into individual mason jars to take home with us. I, much later in life, discovered that these were actually Grape Hyacinths. They grow in my garden, though well past their prime at present. To me they will always be Bluebells and lovely memories. Thank-you!

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    1. Ah, yes, I can see that bluebells would be a good name for Grape Hyacinths too. (I do have a few in the garden here.) And in Scotland there’s another plant called ‘harebell’ that is sometimes called bluebell. (That one is a kind of campanula.) So there’s lots of opportunity for confusion, hehe!

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    1. I love blue flowers and I’m always happy to add them to my garden. I have a ceanothus just outside the window here and when I look up from the PC I can see its blue haze of flowers. 🙂

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      1. We have a tiny office at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. It can be lovely and it can also be very distracting because there’s so much work waiting to be done out there!

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    1. Thank you Ali! I agree…we don’t have woodland with bluebells close to us, otherwise I’d remove the Spanish bluebells from the garden…might anyway. (They were already here when we came.)

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  2. Interesting to see the two different kinds. We have a flower here that must be a bluebell. It looks like it has similar leaves and it is the same blue, but it only has one flower at the top of each stalk. I was wondering if they were bluebells when I saw clusters of them in the woods. They are not so common here. I must go look this up now!

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    1. Might be a related plant? In Scotland there is another plant – harebells – which are sometimes called bluebells. They’re actually a kind of campanula. Your flower sounds interesting. Must be lovely to see them in the woods! 🙂

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    1. And because so many of the woods with bluebells are ancient woodlands, it’s even worse if we lose them. These are precious places!

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