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The Difference Between Spanish and English Bluebells

I love to share my extensive gardening knowledge with readers so that they, too, can enjoy the wonders of all kinds of verdant plant life.

The upright Spanish bluebell on the left, and the drooping English bluebell on the right (although the English bluebell is showing signs of having crossed with the other).

The upright Spanish bluebell on the left, and the drooping English bluebell on the right (although the English bluebell is showing signs of having crossed with the other).

Spanish X and Wild English Bluebells

I had to stare hard at these two photos above for quite a while to find the difference between the two plants.

The plant on the left comes from my garden, while the plants on the right comes from a woodland bluebell grove nestled deep in the countryside, miles from the madding crowd.

The main differences between a Spanish bluebell and an English bluebell are:

  • On the Spanish flower, the bells are all around the stem, not just on one side, which gives the English bluebell its drooping stature.
  • The leaves are wider and bigger.
  • The petals of each bell open wider and flare at the ends rather than curl.
  • The bells are slimmer on the English bluebell.
  • The stamen is blue on the Spanish version and yellow on the English one.
  • The English bluebell is a deeper blue than the Spanish one, which is a delicate shade of pale blue.
  • The English bluebell is stronger scented.
  • The Spanish bluebell is taller.
  • The Spanish bluebell can tolerate sunshine and happily grows in open spaces, whereas the English bluebell prefers at least partial shade and is never found growing in open spaces.
  • Spanish bluebell flowers lift their heads towards the sun. English bluebells never do.

Many gardens have a Spanish and English bluebell cross, which has some of the characteristics of each plant.

Spanish/English bluebell cross on the left, and a woodland pure bluebell on the right.

Spanish/English bluebell cross on the left, and a woodland pure bluebell on the right.

Hyacinthoides Non-scripta

The traditional, common bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is a perennial spring wildflower common in Europe from northern Spain upwards.

The whole of the British Isles and Ireland were once carpeted with them, when the lands were mostly forest, which is where the wild bluebell grows.

While it is often referred to as the "English bluebell," this nickname appears to be a recent development, as people used to refer to these flowers as "bluebells" or occasionally, "wild hyacinth".

The wild bluebell grows in wooded areas in shade or dappled sunshine, and it flowers for about a month in early spring each year.

They make wonderful cut flowers for the house, and their heady scent pervades the air, bringing the promise of summer.

The common bluebell has naturalized in many parts of the United States, where it is an introduced species.

Bluebell wood.

Bluebell wood.

Hyacinthoides hispanica

The Spanish bluebell was introduced into British gardens in the 17th century, so it is hardly a newcomer.

Upright, erect, colorful and with the ability to grow in full sun, the Spanish bluebell actually makes a much better garden flower.

My garden is full of bluebells, Spanish, English and the SP/E cross, which are called Hyacinthoides massartiana, which is too much like "Martian" for my liking. They are NOT aliens; they are beautiful garden flowers that have some cross-breeding in their otherwise pure background.

In effect, they are multicultural bluebells.

A close-up of Spanish bluebells.

A close-up of Spanish bluebells.

How to Propagate Bluebells

Nature does an excellent job of propagating bluebells. Each flowerhead, and there are literally millions in a dense bluebell wood, is packed with black seeds encased inside the dried sacs at the base of the flowerhead.

When they are ripe, the sacs open and cast the seeds to the wind or to the forest floor underneath.

There, many seeds germinate and sprout the following year as a slender grass-like leaf. At the base forms a tiny bulb which gets bigger every year until it too is mature enough to flower.

Other seeds become food for small forest foraging birds and animals, but those who survive very quickly help spread the new colony of bluebells.

Meanwhile, each flowering plant sends out bulblets underground, which flower when they mature. In this way, one single bulb can very quickly colonize a large area, given the perfect growing conditions.

The wild bluebell prefers the acidic but enriched soils found in forest floors.

To grow bluebells, you will need either seed or bulbs; there is no other way to grow them.

Spanish bluebells in the wild.

Spanish bluebells in the wild.

How Bluebells Cross With Each Other

Wind or insects carry the pollen from one flower or plant to another.

While the English bluebell will always remain so, and the offshoot bulbs the main bulb throws off each will also continue to be pure bluebells, the seeds that develop on the flower heads each year will carry the parentage of the pollen that arrived on the carpel, the female part of the flower.

The resulting seeds will grow into a hybrid cross should that pollen come from a Spanish bluebell.

Because the Spanish bluebell is the more dominant species, the resulting flowers will show more likeness to their Spanish parent than they do to their English parent.

Scientists are worried that eventually the English bluebell will die out, as its characteristics are slowly lost.

Each bulb reproduces to grow several more clones each year, and the new bulbs can flower in a much shorter time-scale than their seedling brothers.

So, in effect, having a collection of pure English bluebell bulbs placed, or growing, in a protected area will ensure the continuation of the species.

As bluebells grow best in deep forests, under the canopy of trees, and as deforestation continues, then it is possible that one day there will be no English bluebells left except in laboratories.

But that is not about to happen in our lifetime, so we may as well just enjoy those pretty flowers as they are, whether they are Spanish or English.

A bunch of garden bluebells.

A bunch of garden bluebells.


Meep on May 16, 2020:

Im doing a project on these very usefull this site was!

Jo Parker on April 24, 2020:

I am very pleased that our government made it illegal to pick or uproot bluebells as otherwise some areas could have been severely depleted. I doubt that this had any impact on fiscal or criminal activities.

CB on May 09, 2019:

Thoroughly enjoyed this article! I found it an informative & fun read. As I am contemplating adding bluebells to our garden, this was a good primer. Thank you.

Roger Griffith on May 03, 2019:

This writer has more opinions than knowledge

Slioch on May 01, 2019:

"You'd be forgiven for thinking that Armageddon had arrived, all because the Spanish bluebells were intermingling with English bluebells, and were COMING OUT ON TOP!

Like, does it matter?"

What a profoundly ignorant comment. The sort of comment that could only come from someone contemptuous of history and heritage, not to mention ecology. Or perhaps someone blinded by the money that garden centres and nurseries can make by selling damaging plants to careless shoppers.

Rather like those who don't give a damn about our native red squirrels being displaced and killed by North American greys.

Anita on April 24, 2019:

What can I do if a garden centre has sold me Spanish bluebells as English bluebells? I want the true woodland bluebell. This has happened twice.

Valerie Weir on April 23, 2019:

I am a Scot and have always lived in country areas in Scotland. Everybody I knew called harebells, bluebells . This is the Scotch Bluebell. We learned at school that the 'proper' name for them was harebell.

We called Hyacinthoides non-scripta, wild hyacinths and learned that these were called bluebells in England.

Sally Tough on April 23, 2019:

My husband from the West coast of Scotland always calls bluebells, harebells.

Confusing for me as I’m English!

How rare are white native bluebells?

Sally Tough on April 23, 2019:

My Scottish highlander husband calls them harebells!

How rare are the white native bluebells?

Tom Mc~~ on March 28, 2019:

My father was Irish (Bn.1920s) and he always called our harebell a bluebell .

Sue on February 02, 2018:

Thanks for this very informative post, great info on the two kinds of Bluebells.

bazcoleman on May 07, 2014:

English, Spanish or Hybrid. That's what happens. That's evolution happening right now. My English son has married a lovely Spanish girl and their daughter, Carlotta, is a beautiful hybrid. What does it matter if the bluebells mix? As long as there are bluebells in the Spanish and in the English springtimes I will be happy.

GardenExpert999 (author) from Scotland on June 03, 2012:

It's a good way to tell the difference for anyone wondering, as the wild bluebell's stamen is always yellow, and harder to see as you have to prise the petals apart.

Leah Lefler from Western New York on June 02, 2012:

We saw several bluebell woods in Ireland when we lived there- they are so beautiful! I didn't realize the Spanish Bluebells were a different type - interesting that the stamen is blue!