Did you know that the UK has 50% of the world population of common bluebells?
Those beautiful flowers that carpet our woods and forests at this time of year are an iconic feature of the British countryside. Their vivid colour and sweet scent make a walk in the month of May something special, and they are one of our favourite flowers.
They are also a protected species, and the native bluebell is under threat from an invasive non-native bluebell, sometimes known as the Spanish bluebell.
The native Bluebell and the non-native Bluebell
There are two species of bluebells found in the UK.
The common bluebell, sometimes called the British bluebell, has the scientific name Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is native to the UK. It has a dark blue colour, and the bell like flowers are delicate, narrow and have a tight curl in the fronds at the end of each bell. The leaves are dark green, and they have a lovely scent.
The non-native Bluebell is typically a lighter blue in colour, has a more open bell-shape to the flower with less curled fronds, and has thicker stalks and leaves, and no scent. It is native to continental Europe, but was brought over as an ornamental garden plant in Victorian times. Unfortunately, it has spread from gardens and out into the wild environment.
There are two species the non-native bluebell could be could be – the Italian Bluebell (Hyacinthoides italica) and the Spainish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) – and it’s the Spainish Bluebell that is the biggest threat and the most commong of the two non-native species you are likely to find.
Why are they under threat?
The Spanish bluebell is robust, which means it can survive places the British bluebell doesn’t do so well in. They two species can also interbreed, producing hybrid plants. Over time, if the spread of Spanish bluebells continues, we may only find them or hybrids in the wild. This is a good example of why people should be very careful about what plants they plant and what plants they bring into the country from other places.
The common Bluebell: a protected species
Because British bluebells are under threat, they are protected by law. This means that you cannot dig up or uproot any bluebell plants in the wild. We’d also recommend not picking wildflowers, as they are a source of food for many insects – and don’t you think they look better alive in the forests, rather than wilting at home in a vase?
The specific law that protects them is the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
What can you do to help?
There is LOADS you can do to help!
Firstly, you should get involved in the #GreatBluebellCount, run by The Woodland Trust. This is a charity that protects and conserves our woods and forests, and they want to get an accurate map of where each type of bluebell is found. All you need to do is register on the website, then when you are out walking, identify what kind of bluebell you’ve seen and where. You then add this information to the online survey, and the Woodland Trust will use that to make the map.
It’s really simple – they even have a great ID guide to help you work out whether you’ve found a British or Spanish bluebell or a hybrid!
We reckon it also makes for a great way to spend a weekend day, hunting for bluebells, and is great for school groups too. Why not turn it into a project to find out what types of bluebells you have near your school?
Another way you can help protect bluebells is by protecting the woodlands they grow in. The Woodland Trust is always looking for volunteers and donations, and you can also see what your local Wildlife Trust has happening too. Check out our guide to volunteering to help nature for a few more suggestions.