The English Bluebell
Have you ever walked through a forest clearing full of wild English bluebells in early spring? If not, you're missing out. Apart from the beauty spread out before your eyes of a sea of blue, the scent filling the air is heavenly.
The English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is under threat and has become a protected species in the eyes of the Law. It is now illegal to lift bluebell bulbs from the wild, and the penalty is a hefty fine, so don't do it.
What can we do to protect the English bluebell when we are not allowed to take their bulbs? We could collect their dried seed heads and plant more in our own garden and on every available spot of spare ground.
Bluebells spread not just by seed but by their vast underground root system. New bulbs form at the end of those spread-out roots, making the bluebell particularly difficult to get rid of if they choose to take over your garden.
Characteristics of the English Bluebell
- They have single flowers on one side of the stem only.
- The weight of the flowers makes the stem bend over in the direction of the flowers.
- The flowers are a deeper shade of blue.
- The bells are narrower and almost closed.
- The stalk is slimmer.
- The leaves are narrow.
- They grow quite happily in shade or dappled shade.
- They dislike sunshine and prefer shade.
- Anthers are yellowish.
- Their rich scent permeates the air and is breathtakingly wonderful. The smell is very similar to its cousin, the hyacinth, which we often grow in pots.
How to Grow English Bluebells
Are you interested in growing your own bluebells?
Follow this guide:
- Wait until the flower heads of the bluebell have dried on the plant and are beginning to crack open. The seed inside should be shiny and black. If they are still green or greenish, they are under-ripe.
- Collect all the seeds and lay them flat on absorbent paper, and leave them in a warm, dry place for a few days to dry completely.
- Place in a sealed container and then place in the fridge. This is vitally important. The seed of the bluebell must have a period of dormancy in order to germinate. If you plan on growing English bluebells from seed, do not skip this step, or else your seed won't germinate (for at least another year).
- Leave your seeds there for a few weeks, then gently rake them into newly prepared soil, preferably in a shady area, like under a tree.
Once planted, you should see grass-like leaves coming up in spring. The seed will eventually turn into a bulb. You do not need to fertilize or water these seedlings if you live in a naturally wet country like the UK unless the seedlings come up during a particularly dry spell.
These seedlings will die down around the time the wild bluebells themselves die down for another year, and the following year your seedlings should reappear, slightly bigger this time.
After 4 or 5 years, you may be rewarded with flowers, and you can now help Mother Nature by collecting yet more seeds and starting the whole process off again.
The bulbs themselves put out bulb-lets which in turn grow yet more plants.
In the wild, many seeds are lost to predators scattered as they are on the soil's surface. If you walk in bluebell woods and see those seeds on the surface, you can help by burying them underground.
Where to Buy English Bluebell Seeds
After you have grown your own English bluebell garden, there is a small fortune to be made selling the seeds on eBay.
If you have no access to some wild English bluebells to collect their seeds, consider buying them online from a multitude of sellers. You will not know until they flower several years later whether you have been sold genuine English bluebell seeds or hybrids.
To be certain of what you are buying, contact the seller before you buy and ask them to describe the difference between the two plants. If they can't or won't, do not buy. A genuine English bluebell breeder will be able to immediately tell you the difference.
Why Are the English Bluebell Under Threat?
Its cousin, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), was introduced to the UK over 300 years ago, in 1680 to be exact. While the two seemed to co-exist peacefully side by side, in recent years, botanists have discovered that the Spanish variety has infiltrated the traditional English wild bluebell.
The Spanish bluebell, while similar in looks and appearance, lacks scent. Another significant difference is that while the English bluebell grows happily in dappled through to deep shade, the Spanish bluebell prefers full sunshine and is shade-intolerant, though they can grow in light shade.
The Spanish bluebell was only ever introduced to gardens, and it is believed their spread to the countryside is due to people recklessly dumping garden waste. However, this overlooks the fact that bluebell seeds can be spread in the wind and may have escaped naturally.
Over half the world's population of English bluebells live in the UK.
The Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides Hispanica)
The Spanish bluebell is stronger than its native cousin, and the fear is that the English bluebell may be wiped out in the future. The two easily cross-pollinate, and the Spanish bluebell has the stronger genetics.
Botanists have already witnessed the demise of the English bluebell in its natural habitat in many places, and steps are now being taken to try to prevent the loss of this beautiful plant completely.
Characteristics of the Spanish Bluebell
- They grow upright in the sunshine.
- Largely shade-intolerant, but will tolerate light shade.
- Flowers all around the stalk.
- The stem is thicker than the English bluebell.
- Flowers are a paler shade of blue.
- Flowers grow taller and open wider, and the petals' edges curl outwards.
- The leaves are wider and thicker.
- The anthers are blue.
While some people seem to be seeing it as their duty to eradicate the Spanish bluebell, they are eminently more suitable for growing in a garden than the wild English bluebell.
Hybrid Bluebell (Hyacinthoides massartiana)
The hybrid bluebell (Hyacinthoides massartiana) is actually a beautiful plant.
Like the Spanish bluebell, the flowers are tall and rigid, and the colors are not limited to the exquisite blue of the typical Spanish bluebell. Being a cross between the wild English bluebell, they retain the best characteristics of both plants.
Hybrid Bluebell Characteristics
- They grow in the sun and shade.
- They can be scented.
- Their colors blend really well with other spring bulbs - the yellow of the daffodils or the reds of tulips.
- They have erect solid flowers perfect for cutting for the house.
- They are very resilient against pests and diseases.
- They are not fussed about soil conditions.
- They tolerate both excessive sun and rain.
- They spread naturally.
- Hybrid bluebells are guaranteed to give you a beautiful display year after year.
What more could you ask for from a garden flower?
How to Get Rid of Bluebells
They are herbicide-resistant, and the only way to get rid of them is to lift them out of the ground where they appear.
Do not compost the bulbs and leaves, as they will take over your compost heap. Instead, place them in a sealed black bin liner for at least a year before adding them to the compost heap or burning them.
Digging around their roots will almost certainly disturb any seeds lying there, encouraging them to sprout, so it may take several years before your garden is bluebell-free. However, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why anyone wants a bluebell-free garden.
abbyC on March 07, 2016:
do you know what year bluebells make seeds?
IzzyM (author) from UK on November 11, 2012:
Thanks Precy :) Sadly, bluebells woods are fast becoming a rare sight these days.
precy anza from USA on November 10, 2012:
Wow! Beautiful photos, specially those bluebells on the woods. ^-^'
IzzyM (author) from UK on November 02, 2012:
I would too! Thanks for all you are doing :)
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on November 02, 2012:
OK IzzyM, I'll use it. I'm sure it'll be OK, but if the photographer did object, there'd be no problem with removing it. I'd be happy to use your own photos as these are good, and do justice to the subject, but this one emphasises the beauty of a carpet of bluebells so well.
IzzyM (author) from UK on November 02, 2012:
The bluebell wood picture is amazing! Use it if you want. Meanwhile I added in another couple of my own, but they are not outstanding. Not to worry, its the information in the hub that counts and not the photos.
Many thanks again!
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on November 02, 2012:
Cheers. I was going to use the picture of the bluebell wood in this hub which illustrates the theme of the hub so well, but for now I'll use one of the photos from your other page to be on the safe side.
I suspect that most people who put images on the Internet actually really don't mind having them used as long as a link or credit is given, but some of course want to restrict use for commercial reasons, which is fair enough.
Anyway, you'll be able to find my review in a few days. Best wishes. Alun.
IzzyM (author) from UK on October 31, 2012:
Thanks very much - a bit of extra exposure is always welcome!
Maybe if the original owners of the photos in this page see them and contact me we can resolve the issue amicably.
I am happy to include a link back for them. These photos are far better than my own. I think the one with the seed-head might be mine. I tend to take photos of things like that lol
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on October 31, 2012:
Many thanks for your reply IzzyM. I understand absolutely. The issue of copyright is perfectly understandable but can be a headache for hub writers who need to illustrate their work with great photos! If OK then, I'd be happy to include one of your own photos from your other page instead (and I'll give this a mention too!) My review should be online within a week - hope it brings a few extra visitors to your hubs. Alun.
IzzyM (author) from UK on October 27, 2012:
Hi Alun :) I wrote this hub before I knew about copyright and photos and stuff, so these photos are effectively 'borrowed' from someone. I have another hub about bluebells on another account - https://dengarden.com/gardening/The-Difference-Bet... - and these photos are all mine and free to use. You could use one of them with no come-back, but I must take responsibility for the photos here myself, should anyone complain. I'm sure I must have many more photos of English bluebells on my hard drive if nothing there is suitable. Let me know! And thanks.
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on October 27, 2012:
Hi IzzyM; this is a beautiful page illustrating and describing one of the most attractive of wild flowers in the UK. (well actually, three of the most attractive!) Interesting to hear of the problems which the Spanish Bluebell has caused, and good to see the encouragement to grow bluebells from seeds. And great photos. Voted up accordingly.
Izzy, I am writing a review of ten of the best wild plant/flower hubs on HubPages and would like to promote this page in the review. It will probably be published within the next two weeks. I've written four similar reviews previously, and one thing I always do is to include one photo to represent each hub. I don't know if these photos are free to use, but I would like to ask if it's OK to include one in my review. An example of one previous review I've written can be found below, and this will illustrate how I would use the photo. Cheers. Alun.
IzzyM (author) from UK on July 18, 2010:
This is the thing I have found the most difficult to describe. The scent of a bluebell wood can't be added to a video or a photo...you just have to imagine it. And like you, those of us who have been in one will always remember it.
Merlin Fraser from Cotswold Hills on July 18, 2010:
Those wonderful photographs bring back so many fantastic memories from my mad youth. I lived in the countryside very close to three major bluebell woods. I remember on hot sunny days heading for the woods for relief from the heat.
At their peak the scent was almost overpowering. It is a fragrance that always take me back to happier more relaxed times.
IzzyM (author) from UK on July 15, 2010:
I don't know why I didn't think to write about the English bluebell before now, seeing as I have been collecting (and selling) seed for a while now. My dad has a very old garden and it is full of the wild English bluebell and so when I visit at the right time of year I can have my pick! As a child I remember walking through bluebell woods picking flowers to take home to my mum. Everyone adores bluebells :)
Dave from Lancashire north west England on July 15, 2010:
Hi, this is sound advise for gardeners who may not realise how threatened our native bluebells are. An excellent informative hub. Best wishes to you.