Bluebells: the sign of spring in the Chilterns

Bluebells: the sign of spring in the Chilterns

Bluebells flower in abundance in ancient woodland in early spring – making the most of the sunlit forest floor before the canopy becomes too dense with leaves and blocks out the light.

An iconic woodland flower in the Chilterns, bluebells can carpet entire areas and are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. It is illegal to dig up the plants or bulbs, and landowners are prohibited from removing and selling bluebells from their land. It is also an offence to trade and sell wild bluebell bulbs and seeds.

While bluebells are common throughout the Chilterns and much of the UK, they are still under threat from habitat destruction, hybridisation and illegal trade. It can take many years for bluebells to recover from trampling damage, so if you’re admiring the bluebells while out and about, please take care to stay on paths and not damage the flowers themselves.

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Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, but the native variety is under threat from non-native Spanish bluebells, which were introduced to UK gardens by the Victorians and subsequently spread to woodland areas. The two varieties have a number of distinctive differences and are easily identifiable from looks alone.

A hybrid of the two varieties (Hyacinthoides x massartiana) is very similar in appearance to the native bluebell. Not only does this hybrid pose a threat by out-competing with native bluebells, but it may also be diluting the gene pool.

Native bluebells

The native, or common, bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, has smaller, narrower leaves that are about 1 – 1.5cm wide.

The narrow, tubular-bell shaped flowers are a deep violet-blue in colour and curl back at the edges. Flowers are only found on one side of the stem, and this gives the common bluebell its distinctive droop.

Inside the flowers is a pale yellow/cream coloured pollen.

One difference between the two bluebell varieties that is not visual is scent; common bluebells are sweet smelling.

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Spanish bluebells

Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, have much broader leaves than their native counterpart – about 3cm wide.

The conical-bell shaped flowers are a pale blue colour, and sometimes even white or pale pink, and are broader and more open.

Unlike the common bluebell, flowers of the Spanish variety are found on both sides of the stem, which remains upright and lacks the droop of the native variety.

Inside the flower is a pale blue, or sometimes green, pollen.

If you are unsure identifying them by looks alone, a distinctive difference between Spanish bluebells and native ones is their complete lack of scent.

Chilterns ANOB
Chilterns ANOB

Bluebells and Greek mythology

Did you know, the bluebell’s scientific name, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, originates from Greek mythology?

When Prince Hyacinthus died, Apollo’s tears spelt “alas” on the petals of the hyacinth flower that sprang up from Prince Hyacinthus’s blood. Non-scripta means unlettered and distinguishes bluebells from similar looking hyacinths.

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Bluebells: the sign of spring in the Chilterns

Bluebells flower in abundance in ancient woodland in early spring and are found throughout the Chilterns.

Chilterns ANOB
Chilterns ANOB

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