If you’ve recorded a bluebell in this year’s Big Bluebell Watch or admired a swathe of blue at a wood near you, you may be aware that not all is as it seems in our springtime woods. That typically British spectacle of a carpet of bluebells is under threat, and its chief enemy comes in a cunning disguise.
The star of the show
The UK’s native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) grows only in the moist conditions of western Europe, thriving in the British Isles. Elsewhere it is only common in the north and west of France and is rare and in some localities an escape in Holland, Belgium and northwestern Germany. It flourishes in our damp, mild climate – in fact, we boast a significant proportion of the world’s population. It's the quintessential plant of the woodland floor, its life-cycle closely linked to that of the trees it’s often found beneath. Each spring its leaves race to emerge and take advantage of open sunlight before buds burst in the canopy overhead.
Bluebells and woodland go hand in hand. A carpet of bluebells often hints at an area’s history as woodland, even if the trees are long gone, and their close association with ancient woodland in particular can provide an important clue to the age of a wood. And it’s not just trees that share a relationship with bluebells. They are also a source of nectar for early emerging bumblebees and other insects, and a precious part of the UK’s cultural identity.
As its name suggests, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is native to Spain and Portugal, but has spread across much of the UK thanks to (admittedly well-meaning) human introduction.
This close relative was introduced to Britain in the second half of the 17th century as a garden plant, prized for its vigorous growth and bold colour. It grows faster and spreads more quickly than our native bluebell, escaping gardens and establishing feral populations in urban areas, hedgerows, road sides and woodland.
It also readily cross breeds with native bluebells, producing highly fertile hybrids which further dilutes the gene pool of pure native bluebells.
So why does this worry conservationists?
Our bluebells already have a lot on their plate. The effects of climate change could put an end to the stable, mild spring temperatures they do best in. The steady loss of woodland habitats and the ever increasing divides between those that are left leave little room for bluebells to grow and spread. And where they put on the best shows, their appeal draws visitors who can damage them if they’re not careful. Add into that mix a bold, brash and hardier cousin, one that does quite well in these new conditions, and you begin to appreciate the issue.
As well as the threat of extinction Spanish bluebells pose to our native bluebells, their spread could also have knock-on effects for other species. Native plants and animals evolve together, forming close dependencies and relationships which break down when one is removed or replaced. Most conservation organisations agree that the preservation of native plants and animals is crucial to maintaining the variety of life that makes our woods and wild places so rich and diverse.
What’s the solution?
The complete removal of Spanish bluebells from our wild places would be impractical, economically unfeasible and difficult to achieve. Hybrid bluebells can be notoriously difficult to identify, and they’re so well established that the task of finding and eliminating them all would be near impossible.
Instead, the Woodland Trust works to secure the future of native bluebells and their home: we purchase woodland to save it for people and wildlife, restore ancient woodland to its former glory, and campaign against threats and for better legislative protection. We also carefully manage the woods in our care to ensure native plants like the bluebell can thrive unchallenged.
You can help
Do your bit by considering alternatives when choosing new plants for your garden. Avoid buying non-native bluebells from your garden centre, and if you decide to plant native bluebells, make sure the seller can prove they have not been collected from the wild.
Never introduce, translocate or fly-tip plants from your garden to the wild, and take care to avoid their accidental spread by only removing Spanish bluebells from your garden once they have finished flowering, allowing them to dry and the bulbs to die before composting or binning.