Quick facts

Common names: bluebell, English bluebell, British bluebell, English harebell, wild hyacinth, cuckoo’s boots, granfer griggles, witches’ thimbles, lady’s nightcap, fairy flower, cra’tae (crow’s toes)

Scientific name: Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Family: Asparagaceae

Origin: native

Flowering season: mid-April to late May

Habitat: broadleaf woodland, fields, along hedgerows

What do bluebells look like?

Bluebells are unmistakable bell-shaped perennial herbs. They actually spend the majority of their time underground as bulbs, emerging, often in droves, to flower from April onwards.

Leaves: are narrow, around 7mm to 25mm wide and 45cm in length. They are strap-shaped, smooth and hairless, with a pointed tip.

Flowers: usually deep violet-blue in colour, bluebells are bell-shaped with six petals and up-turned tips. These sweet-smelling flowers nod or droop to one side of the flowering stem (known as an inflorescence) and have creamy white-coloured pollen inside. Some bluebell flowers can be white or pink. Up to 20 flowers can grow on one inflorescence.

Not to be confused with: Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), which is very similar in appearance to the British bluebell. However, Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the British bluebell. Hybrid bluebell (Hyacinthoides x massartiana) is a mix of the British and Spanish bluebell. It is often very similar in appearance to our native bluebell, but might threaten its existence by out-competing it and diluting the gene pool.

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Bluebells flowering close-up

Credit: Richard Becker / WTML

Where to find bluebells

Bluebells are native to western Europe with the UK being a species stronghold. They're associated with ancient woodland and are often used in combination with other species as a clue that a wood is ancient. They reach their greatest densities in the UK’s woods where many thousands of bulbs can exist in one woodland, creating the incredible blue carpets we fondly associate with spring. They also grow along hedgerows and in fields.

bluebells in full bloom covering the woodland floor

Visiting woods

The UK's best bluebell woods

See a stunning sea of blue! Discover some of the most beautiful bluebell displays around the country.

Best bluebell woods
bee pollinating a bluebell

Credit: Alecowenevans / iStockPhoto.com

Value to wildlife

Many insects reap the benefits of bluebells which flower earlier than many other plants. Woodland butterflies, bees and hoverflies all feed on their nectar. Bees can ‘steal’ the nectar from bluebells by biting a hole in the bottom of the flower, reaching the nectar without the need to pollinate the flower.

Did you know?

Bluebells can reproduce sexually by seed or asexually by natural vegetative propagation.

Did you know?

Some flowers have held symbolic meanings for centuries. This is known as the language of flowers, or floriography and was really popular during Victorian times. It’s a form of coded communication where each flower has its own special meaning.

Mythology and symbolism

There are countless folklore tales surrounding bluebells, many of which involve dark fairy magic. Bluebell woods are believed to be intricately woven with fairy enchantments, used by these mischievous beings to trap humans. It is also said that if you hear a bluebell ring, you will be visited by a bad fairy, and will die not long after. If you are to pick a bluebell, many believe you will be led astray by fairies, wandering lost forevermore.

In the language of flowers, the bluebell is a symbol of humility, constancy, gratitude and everlasting love. It is said that if you turn a bluebell flower inside-out without tearing it, you will win the one you love, and if you wear a wreath of bluebells you will only be able to speak the truth.

bluebells covering the floor in Foxley Wood

Credit: Richard Lay / WTML

Uses of bluebells

Bluebells have been used for a variety of different things throughout history, not just for ornamental purposes. Their sticky sap was once used to bind the pages of books and glue the feathers onto arrows, and during the Elizabethan period, their bulbs were crushed to make starch for the ruffs of collars and sleeves. Due to their toxicity, there has been little use for bluebells in modern medicine. However, their bulbs have diuretic (increases urination) and styptic (helps to stop bleeding) properties, and research on how these flowers could potentially help fight cancer is ongoing.

Did you know?

This species is a slow grower, taking at least five years for a seed to develop into a bulb.

Threats and conservation

While the bluebell is still common throughout Britain, it is under threat locally from habitat destruction, hybridisation with non-native bluebells and the illegal trade of wild-collected bulbs. Bluebells can take years to recover from the damage caused by trampling, and if their leaves are crushed they can be weakened (as they can no longer photosynthesise).

The bluebell is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This means digging up the plant or bulb in the countryside is prohibited and landowners are prohibited from removing bluebells from their land to sell. The species was also listed on Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998, which makes trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds an offence. This legislation was designed to protect bluebell from unscrupulous bulb collectors who supply garden centres.