I think bluebells are one of the most romantic flowers – just imagine a springtime walk through beech woods just beginning to get the first flush of bright lime green foliage and beneath them a knee-high carpet of cerulean blue. The nodding heads just dance in the sunshine and the perfume is divine.

Purple haze – a carpet of bluebells

Bluebells take many years to become established so, wherever you see them in proliferation, like wild garlic and wood anemone, they are an indicator of really ancient, native deciduous woodland. They flower early in the season in May, taking advantage of the light available before the surrounding trees come into full leaf and block out the sun.

Bluebells in the beech wood on the woodland path, Minnowburn

Once the canopy fills with leaves the forest floor becomes darker and the ferns, mosses and other shade lovers take over. But the (quite literally) centuries of autumn leaf fall make the soil richly fertile, giving the hungry bluebells all the nutrition they need.

Native bluebell nodding its head demurely!

Sadly, our native bluebell is losing ground to an insidious competitor: the Spanish bluebell. Introduced by the Victorians as a garden plant, the Spanish bluebell has made it ‘over the garden wall’ and out into the wild where it crossbreeds with our native plants and produces fertile hybrids with a mix of characteristics.

Native bluebells in Portglenone

Our native bluebell has:

  • bell shaped flowers with rolled back tips
  • a droopy head
  • a sweet scent
  • white pollen

The Spanish bluebell however has:

  • conical flowers with open tips
  • an upright stem
  • no perfume
  • blue pollen

Spanish bluebells – photo by Richard Burkmar

In summary, they are fairly easy to tell apart – our native bluebells are more delicate and have slightly bowed heads while the non-native pretenders to the bluebell throne, Spanish bluebells, have a more belligerent upright habit.  But if your bluebell displays ANY of the characteristics of the Spanish usurper it is more than likely a hybrid.