Bluebell carpets are a classic sign of spring in the UK, so here’s mine, in White Downs, a few miles East of Guildford :
Now, for the botany, bluebells, which were once part of the same family as hyacinths, grape hyacinths and squills, now belong to the huge family Asparagaceae – regrouping plants as diverse as asparagus, yuccas and the infamous houseplant called the mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria)!
The classic English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is native to Atlantic parts of Europe, such as the British Isles, Belgium, Western France and Northern Spain. But it’s in Britain that they are are their best, helped by traditional practices such as coppicing (cutting trees every 5-25 years to encourage a multi-stemmed growth), which increase the amount of light available for spring flowers.
However, a close relative, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which was introduced for garden use more than 300 years ago, is menacing the English bluebell.
The Spanish Bluebell can be easily distinguished from native blubells by its broader leaves, spreading petals (instead of curled up in the native blubells), two-sided inflorescence (in native bluebells, flowers are hanging from one side), paler colour of the flowers and absence of scent.
As the two species are closely related, they cross naturally, producing the hybrid Hyacinthoides × massartiana (incidentally named in honour of a Belgian botanist, Jean Massart!).
Hybrids occur regularly in the wild, so why should this one pose a problem?
Well, both H. hispanica and the hybrid are more vigorous plants than the native bluebell, and tend to quickly outcompete its populations.
The flower colour is similar, so having our native bluebells replaced would not mean a dramatic change in landscape. But the spread of the hybrid means that the genetic material of the weakest parent, the native H. non-scripta, will eventually get diluted into the material of the strongest parent. Such loss of genetic diversity could have terrible consequences if a new disease or parasite invades our woodlands.
There is no real method of controlling the spread of the Spanish bluebell, so for now, let’s enjoy the lovely sight of our native bluebells!