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What is a Bluebell?

What is a Bluebell? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

The English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Bluebells are one of the classic English wildflowers, often claimed to be our nation's favourite flower. Much-loved as they are, however, the poor plant's botanical name has been pushed around from pillar to post in Botany.

It has been variously known as Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and as Scilla nutans, or Scilla non-scripta, but the Scilla plants (also known as Squills) evicted it, so it was renamed Endymion non-scriptus, after that handsome Greek youth who was cursed – or blessed – with eternal sleep and eternal non-ageing. One version of his legend claims that he managed to father fifty children whilst still asleep, so maybe it was more of a blessing than a curse... but the handsome Bluebell did not remain Endymion (pronounce Enn-dimmy-on, not Endy-my-on, by the way) for long.

Acknowledging the flower's close resemblance to a Hyacinth, the botanists finally decided to go back to putting it into the genus Hyacinthoides, which is pronounced High-a-sinth Oy-deez. This seems to have suited it, and it remains in that genus to this day.

The species name seems to have been quite persistent, remaining as non-scripta despite moving from genus to genus: non-scripta is a literal translation from the Latin of “not written”. This name is based on a Greek myth, which says that when Prince Hyacinthus died, flowers sprang up from where his blood touched the ground, and the God Apollo's tears spelled the word 'alas' on the petals of those flowers, which seem to have been Hyacinthus orientalis albulus. As the Bluebell is “unlettered” or “not written on”, it tells us that the Bluebell is a different species from the similar-looking Hyacinth.

Throughout all these confusing name changes, the plant remains the same: a single flowering stem, bearing a cascade of individual flowers, growing from a stout white bulb, with a basal rosette of narrow strappy green leaves, forming carpets of scented blueness in English woodlands in late spring, much loved of poets and watercolour artists.

Why are they called Bluebells?
Because, quite logically, the flower is coloured blue, and each individual flower is shaped like a long, narrow bell. The botanical name, Hyacinthoides, means that they look like Hyacinths: and they do, although instead of a dense, packed head of small flowers, the bluebell hangs them out to dry, one by one, along a delicately arching stem.

What are Bluebells used for?
The classic situation for the English Bluebell is to form a dense carpet in deciduous woodland. The bulbs lie dormant all through the summer and winter, then in early spring the first green shoots start to appear, taking advantage of the warmth of the spring sunlight, visible through the bare branches above. They continue to grow through the end of winter, finally bursting up and into flower in a matter of just a few weeks, usually over the end of April into the beginning of May. Then both the flowers and the leaves fade and die, having stored up enough energy in their plump white bulbs to see them through the long months of shade, when the woodland trees regain their leaves.

Blue bell wood, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, photoA carpet of English bluebells in a Welsh wood, brought on by the warm spring sunlight through the still quite bare branches above.

They are easily damaged by careless trampling, so the best Bluebells woods will have clear paths through them. They are now a protected species, and it is an offence to dig them up from the wild, which is probably a good thing as the bulbs are actually rather poisonous, containing glycosides which are similar to those found in Digitalis or Foxglove. It has also been reported that some people are allergic to the leaves, and that contact with their sap, or the sticky residue around the bulbs, can cause contact dermatitis. So look, but don't touch! It's not illegal to pick Bluebells in the wild, but they wilt very quickly, so it is really better to leave them growing, for everyone to admire.

Interestingly, the fat, white bulbs give off a sticky substance that used to be used in fletching arrows, and also in bookbinding: and the poison it contained had the added bonus of helping to protect the books from attack by certain insects.

How do you know it's a true Bluebell?
There are other plants whose common name is Bluebell, and we'll come to those in a little while, but when people ask this question, they are normally concerned, quite rightly, about Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica, or sometimes still labelled Scilla hispanica) invading and hybridising with our English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), and wanting to be able to tell the difference.

Why is there a problem? First let us look at the three species of Hyacinthoides.

Hyacinthoides italica photoThe Italian bluebell, Hyacinthoides italica which, rather than hanging bells, has star-shaped flowers with six petals.

First we can get Hyacinthoides italica or Italian bluebell out of the way: it originates, as the name suggests, from Italy and also from France, Spain and Portugal, where it finds the hot summers and rocky places to its liking. This is a smaller plant than the other two species, and instead of the familiar “bells”, it has a starry arrangement of six petals, making it look rather more like a Squill (Scilla) than a member of the Hyacinthoides genus. It is a pretty little thing, but not in the same league of popularity as the English and the Spanish bluebells.

The other two species are the problem.

Hyacinthoides non-scripta or English bluebell has the bells arranged all on one side of a gently curving stem: each bell is long and narrow, with parallel sides, and the petals curl outwards and back at the bottom. It is sweetly scented, and has narrow strap-like leaves, and narrow means 7-10mm which is about half an inch. It likes to live in the shade during summer, hence its preference for deciduous woodlands.

Hyacinthoides hispanica photoThe Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica - petals all round the stem, widely flared and without the kiss-curl kick at the end

Hyacinthoides hispanica or Spanish bluebell has a stout, upright stem, with the bells sticking out rather untidily all the way round. Each bell is widely flared, and the petals lack the abrupt curl at the end. The flowers are unscented, and the leaves are much broader, 20-30cms or well over an inch wide. They like pasture – lots of sun, nice and open.

As these two species prefer different habitats, in theory there should never be a problem, but the Spanish bluebell is strong and vigorous, and is able to survive quite nicely, thank you, in woodland, so if it is mistaken for English bluebell, and planted in a native Bluebell wood, it will out-perform the native plant.

Worse, these two species hybridise freely, so after a number of years there will be few of the original English bluebells left, just a mass of hybrids, and as the hybrids are not scented, we will not only lose our native plant – and the biodiversity that goes with it – but we will lose forever the wonderful smell of a Bluebell wood.

Why has this happened? The problem of hybridisation was noticed, and it 1981 became illegal under UK law to buy or sell English bluebell bulbs or seeds that were taken from the wild. As it is very difficult to prove that plants were from legitimate sources, it became simpler for nurseries and garden centres to sell the legally imported Spanish bluebells. This means that now, you can rarely buy proper English bluebells, so everyone is planting the Spanish ones in their gardens, and unfortunately the bees, and other pollinating insects, don't know the difference, and hybridisation is occurring to such an extent that most of the Bluebells you find in gardens today are either Spanish, or hybrids.

What can you do to help? Learn the difference, then don't buy Spanish Bluebells. If you want to start a colony of native Bluebells, always buy from a reputable grower, read the labels, and check the width of the leaf... to ensure that they have been correctly labelled. Make sure they are properly rooted in the pot, and always ask the seller where they came from. If you suspect that they might have been imported, or dug up from the wild, then please don't buy them.

If you find H. hispanica in your garden, and want to get rid of them, dig up as many of the bulbs as you can, then either put them on the bonfire heap, or pack them into black plastic and let them rot down to mush for a year or so, before composting them. Never put them straight onto the compost heap – and never, ever throw them away over the garden fence, or onto grass verges or wasteland.

If you find it impossible to get all the bulbs out (they are often very deep in the soil) don't use weedkiller, as they seem to be immune to it: just keep pulling all the foliage off as soon as it appears. Eventually they will run out of energy.

How to spot a hybrid Bluebell
Firstly learn to spot the pure Hyacinthoides non-scripta: learn the correct flower shape, the single-sided flowering arrangement, the scent, and the very narrow leaves. Then learn the identification points of the Hyacinthoides hispanica – upright stem, the widely-flared flowers held untidily all round it, the lack of scent, and the wide leaves. Everything that is partway in between these two is the hybrid.

A quick word about colour: both species of Bluebell come in blue, white, and occasionally pink. Just because it is not blue, does not mean it is an invader! Look at the shape of the individual flower, and the way they are arranged on the stem.

So what other Bluebells can we find?
Putting the word Bluebell into the GreenPlantSwap Plant Finder reveals 17 plant records, not all of which are Endymion, Scilla or Hyacinthoides: unsurprisingly, most of the rest are blue-flowered, and many of them are variations on the theme of being bell-shaped.

Campanula 'Sarastro' photoThey're blue, they're bells, but they are not Bluebells. Their common name is Bellflower, and this one is Campanula 'Sarastro'.

The most likely contender for “acceptable use of the common name Bluebell even though it is botanically incorrect” has to be Campanula, a genus which itself has 77 plant records: the popular common name for many of them is Bellflower, which is a highly appropriate name as the flowers are indeed an open church-bell-like shape. One species in particular, Campanula rotundifolia, has the common name of Harebell in England, but in Scotland is known as Bluebell, which frequently causes confusion for borderline botanists. Due to this, it is often known as Scottish Bluebell to differentiate it from our Hyacinthoides.

Sollya heterophylla, also known as Billardiera heterophylla, has the common name Australian bluebell creeper, solely due to the small blue bell-shaped flowers which it bears in open clusters along its twining, climbing stems. Likewise, Polemonium reptans has blue flowers, but has no other likeness to a proper Bluebell.

Phacelia campanularia, on the other hand, not only bears more-or-less bell shaped blue flowers, but has sap which can be a skin irritant, so it shares two traits with our Bluebell. It has the common name of Californian Bluebell, and the species name “campanularia” gives a clue as to the appearance of the plant – it “looks a bit like campanula”.

Our last two are real imposters – they don't actually look anything like “proper” Bluebells.

Mertensa Virginica or Virginian Bluebell is an upright perennial plant with clusters of dangling lilac-blue flowers, and Wahlenbergia albomarginata – or New Zealand bluebell – looks more like a Scilla than anything else, with long skinny leaves, and starry wide-open flowers of pale blue or white.

And finally...
As mentioned earlier, the sap of the leaves and flower stems can be a skin irritant, and the bulbs are definitely poisonous, which might account for the many folklore tales about Bluebells. For centuries, superstition said that anyone who accidentally wandered into a ring of bluebells would fall under a fairy enchantment, and would then die. It was also said that you should not walk through a patch of Bluebells, as this would make them ring, and ringing the bells would summon fairies - who were generally not the nice, glittery little Disneyfied things that we all know now, but were mean, spiteful, baby-stealers, with wicked tempers.

Not all the Bluebell folklore is quite so grim: there are some tales which say that if you can turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you would eventually win the one that you love, which is a nice idea, if somewhat impractical. Please don't try this for yourselves, we have already mentioned the skin-irritant properties of the sap. Likewise, it used to be said that wearing a wreath made of the flowers would compel the wearer to speak only the truth – but again, not a good idea to try.

It is far better to just walk safely on the paths and enjoy the sight and scent, without damaging them or yourselves – and if you ever find Bluebells growing in hedgerows, it might even indicate that the hedgerow is part of an ancient woodland.

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