Spring and Bluebells

by Trevor Morgan

Spring heralds some of the most beautiful and inspiring sights in our woodlands with the blooming of our native bluebells. One of the best places to see our favourite flower is in Darrick Wood. At the time of writing (early May 2017) the bluebells are starting to die back but there are areas which are still blanketed with these iconic flowers.

The native bluebell is associated with our most ancient woodlands and habitats. It has imposed itself upon the psyche of the British population. Much poetry has been written about it and it is part of our folklore. Famous writers such as Emily Bronte have written about it. Tennyson was an admirer. For all the admiration of its beauty, we must treat the plant with absolute respect as most parts of the plant are poisonous to both humans and animals. The bulbs can make you vomit and the sap could give your skin dermatitis.

Britain’s bluebells are an important international species which botanists have named as Hyacinthoides non-scripta and the UK represents a significant proportion – up 50%- of the Western European population. It is therefore a protected species in the countryside and since 1981 it has been illegal to dig up the bulbs for commercial use even from your own land.

The pure bred British bluebell is under threat however from a domesticated variety of bluebell which is popular as a garden flower. This bluebell, which originated in the Iberian Peninsula and which is named by botanists as Hyacinthoides hispanica, has spread out from gardens into nearby woods. It readily cross breeds with the native variety of bluebell to produce viable offspring. The hybrids appear to be more vigorous than our pure bred varieties so that they are able to dominate the woodland scene. Many urban woodlands only have hybrid varieties of the bluebell and these are now spreading out into the deeper countryside.

Human beings have chosen to define our native wild bluebell as a completely separate species to the domesticated variety. Nature, however, makes no artificial distinction; the pollen of the domestic variety will readily fertilise the flowers of the native variety and vice versa – perhaps domesticated varieties of the bluebell are really the same species as their wild cousins.

The domesticated plants have not so much physically displaced the pure bred native variety of bluebell but they have changed and continue to change the genetic make-up of our wild flower. The hybrids show some of the characteristics of both the domestic bluebell and the wild one.

Nearby, Darrick and Newstead woods are adorned every year by what look to be pure bred native bluebells but there is some doubt as to whether they are hybrids or not. The admixture of genes is variable so that it is often difficult to tell apart pure bred varieties from the hybrids, so a genetic test is required to make a differentiation. The bluebells in Darrick and Newstead woods are very close to the pure wild variety.

Bluebells 1Here is a photograph of some bluebell flowers from the woods: can you tell if it is a hybrid or not? I cannot tell. The flowers have the characteristic re-curved stems of a wild native variety, and the anthers and pollen are cream coloured, which is also an indication that they could be pure bred native flowers. However, some of the rangers working in the woods are of the opinion that they are hybrids.

Bluebells 2Now, below, is a photograph of some domesticated bluebells from a nearby garden. It is obvious that they are not our familiar wild bluebells but their anthers and pollen are a light yellow or cream colour which is a characteristic of wild bluebells rather than domesticated ones. Domesticated varieties are meant to have blue coloured anthers and pollen. Identification of the species or sub-species is problematic and botanists are debating whether the wild British variety of bluebell and the Spanish domesticated variety are in fact separate species.

No matter what the species, all varieties of bluebell have their own beauty. It is probable that our native bluebells will be replaced by hybrids – even in the deep countryside. It may not be possible to stop the spread of genes from the domesticated flowers to the pure bred wild bluebells. But, for as long as our woodlands are protected and allowed to thrive we shall see the woods festooned with blankets of blue to welcome the spring.