Bluebells take a long time to get established, so if you come across a thick swathe of them it’s often a sign that you’re walking through an ancient woodland. Our rangers and gardeners take great care of these special flowers – read on to discover some of their favourite facts and top tips for growing your own bluebells at home.
In this article:
- Bluebell growing tips from our gardeners
- How bluebells support bees and other pollinators
- How to tell the difference between English and Spanish bluebells
Top tips from our gardeners
- Bluebell seeds can take four to five years to reach flowering size, so it’s better to buy bulbs. In spring you can get bluebells ‘in the green’ i.e. while they’re flowering, which many gardeners believe will have a better chance of getting established. Alternatively you can buy them as dry bulbs to plant in autumn.
- You can buy bluebell plants from garden centres – just use our handy guide below to make sure you’re buying English rather than Spanish or hybrids. It’s illegal to pick or dig up wild bluebells so make sure your new plants have been cultivated by a reputable source, and that they haven’t been imported from abroad.
- Bluebells are woodland plants, so they grow best in partial shade with moist but well-drained soil. Adding leaf mould, manure or compost to the soil will ensure they have plenty of nutrients. Try planting them in clumps under deciduous trees or shrubs to create a mini-woodland effect.
- Plant ‘in the green’ bluebells at the same depth they were previously grown – you can often see this where the leaf stalks change from white to green. If you’re using dry bulbs place them 10cm deep and 10cm apart, with the pointed tip facing upwards. Water well after planting.
- Bluebells take a while to get established, so don’t be surprised if you only get leaves next year. The plant will be putting most of its energy into producing roots rather than flowers. Leave the foliage to die back rather than cutting it off – the leaves use sunlight to make food which strengthens the plant for the following year.
English and Spanish bluebells
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 thirty years the Spanish bluebell has escaped from gardens and begun to mix with native 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: native
Native bluebells are narrow with straight sides, and the petals curl back at the tips. The stem droops over at the top, with most of the flowers on one side.
Flower and stem: Spanish
Spanish bluebells are cone shaped, and their petal tips tend to be flared rather than curling. The stems are straight, with flowers all the way round.
Look at the pollen inside the flower. If it’s creamy-white then the bluebell is probably a 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 thin leaves, around 1-1.5cm wide. Spanish and hybrid bluebells tend to have much thicker leaves, around 3cm wide.