PLANT OF THE MONTH
The difference between Spanish and English bluebells and why it matters!
by Paula Doherty
Not a habitat this month, but a plant – the English bluebell. Native bluebells are good indicators of ancient woodlands, or, like a ghost of times past, they can often show where woodland recently existed. Something like a half of the world's English bluebell population is found in Britain. Millions of bulbs can be found in just one ancient woodland, giving rise to carpets of flowers in April and May. They mainly spread by seed, but their bulbs can also split to form clones as well. The species is a protected plant in the UK and it's illegal to dig them up in the wild.
Native bluebells have narrow leaves and sweet-scented deep violet-blue (sometimes white), narrow, tubular-bell flowers, with tips that curl back. The flowers have cream-coloured pollen and are on one side only of the distinctly drooping stem.
Spanish bluebells have broad leaves, pale blue conical-bell flowers with spreading and open tips. They have upright stems with the flowers arranged on all sides of the stem, no scent, and pale blue or green-coloured pollen. The Spanish bluebell was introduced into UK gardens by the Victorians, but it escaped into the wild. Today, the Spanish bluebell can be found alongside our native bluebells in woodlands and along woodland edges, as well as on roadsides and in gardens.
The problem with the Spanish bluebell is that it readily cross-pollinates with our native bluebell creating a whole range of hybrids that over time change the genetic makeup of our native species, diluting its characteristics, weakening it and potentially evolving it into something else. You only have to take a walk down Connors Lane or Pond Lane to see typical examples of hybrids.
Whist it is possible to destroy individual clumps of Spanish Bluebells by carefully digging up the bulbs, it’s virtually impossible to remove great swathes of hybrids that can very quickly take hold. The best strategy is to cut down the flowers to prevent cross-pollination and to pull up the leaves to try to weaken the plants.
Local displays of bluebells can be seen in Caynton Gorse (the woods adjacent to Sidlington) and in Aqualate Local Nature Reserve.