A guide to bluebells in the UK
Every year in springtime, bluebells transform woodland floors across the country into a delicate sea of blue. Learn about the types of bluebell you'll find in the UK, how to tell them apart and how this captivating little flower has long inspired writers, storytellers and even medical researchers.
Bluebell fast facts
- Almost half the world's bluebells are found in the UK – they’re relatively rare elsewhere.
- It's against the law to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells.
- Bluebell colonies take a long time to establish – around five to seven years from seed to flower.
- Bluebells can take years to recover after footfall damage. If a bluebell’s leaves are crushed, they die back from lack of food because they can no longer photosynthesise.
- If you plant bluebells in your garden, make sure you're planting the English bluebell, not the Spanish version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant and could outcompete the UK's native flower.
Bluebell inspiration and myths
The bluebell has held a treasured place in the hearts of British people for centuries. It's been an inspiration to poets and writers such as Oscar Wilde, Emily and Anne Brontë, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
What's in a name?
This delicate wild flower has played an influential role in folk culture too, and some of the names it's been given offer an insight. For instance, the earliest British botanists called them crowtoes, but they’ve also been called cuckoo’s boots, wood hyacinth, lady’s nightcap and witches’ thimbles.
Bluebells in superstition
Many myths surround the bluebell, although for such a heart-lifting flower the folklore is rather gloomy. There was a belief that bluebells were used in witches’ potions. Others believed that anyone who wanders into a ring of bluebells will fall under fairy enchantment, or that anyone who hears the ringing of the flower’s bell will be visited by a malicious fairy and die soon after.
Practical uses for bluebells
We owe the British bluebell more than myth and sentiment, as it has also had practical uses throughout the ages.
From feathers to fashion
The bluebell’s bulb contains muselage and inulin which was used as a glue for fixing feathers and arrows and for bookbinding. The Elizabethans used the starch-like juice from the bluebell bulb to stiffen their fancy ruff collars.
Medicinal uses, past and present
Bluebells were not often used medicinally but legend has it that they were used by 13th-century monks to treat snakebites and leprosy – something of a kill-or-cure remedy given that the bulb is poisonous.
On the other hand, present-day researchers are looking into the bluebell’s highly effective animal and insect repellent properties. There’s even the possibility that certain bluebell extracts could be used to combat HIV and cancer.
Native and non-native species
Hyacinthoides non-scripta bluebells are native to the UK but they’re under threat from the non-native Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) which was introduced to Britain around the late 17th century. In the last 30 years the Spanish bluebell has escaped from gardens and has begun to mix with the native species.
Differences between English and Spanish bluebells
It’s fairly easy to tell the difference between English and Spanish bluebells but the hybrids can be trickier as they take characteristics from both.
Flower and stem
The individual bells of the native bluebell are narrow with straight sides and have petals which curl back at the edges. The stem is curved, with most of the bells hanging to one side.
The bells of Spanish bluebells are more cone-shaped and their petals tend to flare rather than curl back. The stems are more upright, with bells hanging all round.
Look at the pollen inside the flower. If it's creamy-white then the bluebell is probably native (or a hybrid). If the pollen is green or blue, it's not native.
Native bluebells are usually a deep blue-violet shade, while Spanish ones tend to be paler. Confusingly, both varieties can also come in white and pink.
Native bluebells have a strong, sweet scent, which makes the woods smell amazing on a warm day. The Spanish variety has little to no scent.
Native bluebells have relatively narrow leaves, around 1–1.5cm wide. Spanish and hybrid bluebells tend to have much bigger leaves, around 3cm wide.
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