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Fascinating facts about bluebells

PUBLISHED: 09:00 28 March 2016

Bluebells thrive in undisturbed woodland habitats, flowering before the full canopy appears above. Photos: Andrew Mason

Bluebells thrive in undisturbed woodland habitats, flowering before the full canopy appears above. Photos: Andrew Mason

Andrew Mason

If you go down to the woods today you’re in for a vision in blue. Heidi Mansell, Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust commons and greens officer, celebrates one of our most recognisable spring flowers

Spanish bluebell. Photo: Richard BurkmarSpanish bluebell. Photo: Richard Burkmar

The best time of year is approaching to go looking for bluebells. These iconic, delicate yet vibrant flowers turn woodlands into wonderlands of blue around April and May. It’s a flower particularly associated with the UK, which is home to half of the world’s population and here in Hertfordshire we are particularly blessed with fantastic sites to see them.

Most bluebells are found in ancient woodland as they prefer moist, shady conditions and the stability offered by a well-established habitat. Bluebells make the most of flowering early in the spring before the surrounding trees come out in full leaf and completely shade the woodland floor.

For this reason they are an important early flower for many pollinating insects including bees, hoverflies and butterflies. The sweet nectar hidden in the brightly coloured ‘bell’ of the flower can be a lifeline for hungry insects emerging from a dormant winter state.

Folklore

Bluebells have a rich folklore, hinted at by the colloquial name: ‘fairy flowers’. In medieval tales, when forests were perceived as forbidding places, people believed that the bluebells rang out to summon fairies to their gatherings. Unfortunately, any human who heard the bluebell ring would soon die. Thankfully, not all bluebell folklore is quite so gloomy. Some believed that by wearing a wreath made of the flowers, the wearer would be compelled to speak only the truth.

Native bluebell. Photo: Clare GreyNative bluebell. Photo: Clare Grey

Alien invaders

Bluebells are a protected plant species and it is illegal to pick or disturb them. They are however under threat from a non-native species, the Spanish bluebell. There are subtle differences between the two. Here are pointers to help tell them apart:

Native bluebells

 Narrow leaves, usually about 1-1.5cm wide

 Deep purple-blue narrow tube like flowers, with the tips curled right back

 Flowers mostly on one side of the stem, and is distinctly drooping or nodding

 The anthers with pollen inside the flowers are usually cream

 Rich scent

Spanish bluebells

 Broad leaves, often 3cm wide

 Paler blue conical or bell-shaped flowers with spread-out tips

 Flowers all the way round an upright stem

 The anthers are usually blue

 Almost no scent

The easiest way to tell native bluebells from Spanish ones is to look at the pollen. If the pollen is creamy white, it is a native variety and if the pollen is any other colour then it is non-native.

Spanish bluebells are widely sold in garden centres and have spread from gardens into the wild. The Spanish and native species are now inter-breeding, resulting in hybrids that are also cross-breeding. The cross-breeding between what is essentially now three species – native, Spanish and hybrid – could have dramatic consequences for the genetic integrity of the native bluebell and could lead to its extinction. It is now believed that one in six broadleaved woodlands has a mixture of bluebell species. Habitat loss is also having an impact – a result of poor management or destruction of broadleaved woodland.

There are things we all can do to help preserve native bluebells. If you live near a population of native bluebells consider removing all Spanish or hybrid varieties from your garden. This will help prevent hybridisation in the wild. Dispose of unwanted bulbs carefully, making sure they are dead before composting them. If you want to buy and plant native bluebells in your garden, check the scientific labelling is Hyancinithoides non-scripta. Hybrid or Spanish bluebells are sometimes sold as natives, so always buy from a reputable nursery and ask them the source of their stock.

Bluebell visits

A Bluebell and Spring Flowers Walk takes place at Rothampstead’s Knott Wood on Saturday May 7 with guides Ian Denholm (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) and Heidi Mansell (Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust). All welcome. Book at hertswildlifetrust.org

Bluebells can be seen at several Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserves including Gobions Wood near Brookmans Park, Balls Wood near Hertford, and Pryor’s Wood in Stevenage – all have great displays. Visit the Trust’s website hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves for full details.

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