Every year in early Spring, many of Britain’s ancient woodlands undergo a magical transformation. A carpet of blue, delicate flowers lining a woodland glade is a magical sight and there is something truly enchanting about stepping into a bluebell wood.
Bluebell Woods capture the imagination of photographers and nature-lovers everywhere. I enjoy watching visitors treading carefully along woodland paths – avoiding the delicate stems and bulbs, and taking the time to savour the sight and delicate perfume. Young children often seem mesmerised in Bluebell Woods.
Such is our fascination with bluebells; organisations such as The National Trust and The Woodland Trust have dedicated webpages detailing where the best bluebells can be seen and photographed in the UK.
As sunlight flickers through the trees, the fragile flowers are dappled in light – a dreamy haze of blues – no wonder bluebells are associated with wonderment and fairy folklore.
It is thought that over half of the world’s population of the ‘Common Bluebell’ (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are to be found in the UK. The Common Bluebell is the native British bluebell, and is a protected woodland species – at risk of people illegally digging up the bulbs and picking the flowers. But this flower is now seriously threatened by the introduction of the robust, vigorous Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). This species is sold as a garden plant and is producing hybrids with the native population. It is feared that these bluebell hybrids (Hyacinthoides x massartiana) – whilst very beautiful – will over time overtake the native bluebell characteristics. Some British woods have already been invaded by the more dominant Spanish Bluebell.
To identify bluebells, look closely at the flowers. The Common Bluebell starts as a rich cobalt blue as the petals open, which gradually fades to a lighter shade of blue. The bells tend to be long and narrow; and the petals are deeply curled back. The anthers (the little pollen sacks at the top of the stamens in the flowers) are a cream colour. The flowers droop gently to one side, on a slim stem and they have a strong, sweet scent.
The Spanish variety has a thicker, more upright stem, with flowers all the way around. The bells are paler and wider, with less curly petals and the anthers are often blue. They have little or no scent. Despite their name, bluebells can also be white due to a genetic mutation and even pink (although the pink ones are more likely to be Spanish…) The hybrid bluebells have characteristics from both parent plants, which can make them very tricky to identify.
Whilst the robust Spanish bluebell and its hybrids are all very beautiful; there is something uniquely special about the fragility of the Common Bluebell. Hopefully our native species will survive the new competition and continue to inspire future generations who visit our ancient woods.