by Clare Coleman

Drooping, one-sided inflorescence of our native bluebell H. non scripta showing tubular shaped flowers

H. x massartiana (above) showing violet anthers and open, bell shaped flowers with flowers all round the stem.

Bluebell woods are one of Britain's loveliest sights. Although picking the flowers is now discouraged, research has shown that, in small amounts, this does not actually harm the plants. Instead, it is the trampling of the leaves, by an ever increasing number of visitors, that often kills the plants.

Bluebells are one of Britain's most protected plants despite being relatively common. This is because Britain has about 30% of the total world population of Bluebells and there is a thriving illegal trade in wild bluebell bulbs. Even in Britain, it is still legal to take wild bluebell seed with the landowner's consent, which is in high demand due to the popularity of 'wildflower' gardening. Perhaps it is time for a backlash against wildflower gardening as it inevitably puts pressure on wild populations.

Most plants grown in gardens are actually a hybrid and the true Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is therefore rarely naturalised. Recognising Spanish Bluebells or the hybrid between Spanish and wild Bluebells, H. x massartiana (formerly H. x variabilis) is important if wild populations are to be identified correctly and protected.

The table below sets out key characteristics to distinguish the wild Bluebell from the hybrid and Spanish Bluebell.

Character Hyacinthoides hispanica Hyacinthoides x massartiana Hyacinthoides non scripta
Leaf width Usually broad 10 -25 mm Usually broad 10 -25 mm Usually narrow 7 to 15 mm
Anthers Blue Blue or cream in white or pink flowers Cream
Perianth (one flower) Segments widely spreading, flowers becoming saucer shaped Segments moderately spreading, flowers bell-shaped Segments parallel sided below, flowers look tubular
Arrangement of all the flowers (or inflorescence) Not one-sided and erect Not one sided and erect to patent One sided and drooping
Tips of petals (or perianth segments) Not curled back or reflexed Turned outwards and only a little curled back Distinctly curled back

Further reading and references

The Plant Crib (BSBI publication)

Page, K.W. (1987) BSBI News 47:9

Gravestock, I.F. (1987) BSBI News 48:22