Is your Bluebell British or Spanish?

Britiah Bluebell

As this is my first blog for Woodland Ways, a quick intro is in order. My name (nickname) is Bill, I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm until I was 18 and that, plus many years in the cadets gave me a love for the outdoors and camping. Like so many of us, life took over, running businesses, a wife, a mortgage. Then divorce, swapped a house for a boat, and no job – all due to ill health. Getting bored and frustrated, a friend persuaded me to join him on a Woodland Ways course, that lead me to undertake the Woodland Wayer 2018-19 and subsequently Jason accepting me on to the Apprenticeship Scheme.

Recently I joined the instructors and other apprentices for some fun in the woods, for our continual professional development. One of the many tasks Jason set us was to explore the Derbyshire woods and collect one to five plants we could not identify, noting their location, abundance, and if few, photograph rather than collect.

So why did one of the team select the Bluebell? Surely anyone who has just gone for a walk in an established mixed woodland in April and May would have come across the carpets of bluey-purple bells?

The answer was for clarification on the difference between the British Bluebell and the Spanish Bluebell. I have to admit that I didn’t know there were the two different species, which to confuse things more, can and do hybrid. At this time of the year the flowers are also giving way to the seed heads.

Bluebell Seed Head
Bluebell seed head. (courtesy of Easy Wildflowers).
N.B. Native bluebells are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

Our native bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), otherwise named common bluebells, has many names: English bluebells, British bluebells, wood bells, fairy flowers and wild hyacinth, bell bottle, Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles. Flowering in April and May allows them to make the most of the sunlight before the canopy becomes too thick.

The Spanish bluebell, (Hyacinthoides hispanica), was introduced into the UK by the Victorians as a garden plant, and like many plants (including a number in our collection of unknowns) are escapees.  The Spanish bluebell can be found alongside our native bluebell in woodlands, woodland edges and roadsides.

What are the main differences between the two?

There are some easy to identify differences between the two, and of course the collective knowledge of the Woodland Ways team soon had this first ‘unknown’ properly identified as the Spanish Bluebell.

The one I noted down in my book was that the Spanish Bluebell has bells on both sides of the stem and tends to stand more upright on its stem, whereas the British one only has flowers on one side and is therefore more inclined to droop under the weight, giving the classic “Shepherd’s Crook” bent stem.

There are many other indicators between the two:

Native bluebells have: Spanish bluebells have:
narrow leaves, about 1-1.5cm wide broad leaves, about 3cm wide
deep violet-blue (sometimes white), narrow, tubular-bell flowers, with tips that curl back pale blue (often white or pink), conical-bell flowers, with spreading and open tips
flowers on one side of the stem flowers all around the stem
distinctly drooping stems upright stems
a sweet scent no scent
cream-coloured pollen inside blue- or pale green-coloured pollen inside
Britiah Bluebell
British Bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta. (courtesy of Easy Wildflowers)
Spanish Bluebell
Spanish Bluebell – Hyacinthoides hispanica. (courtesy of Easy Wildflowers)

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