Identifying Native Bluebells

Nodding inflorescence of our native Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

The blue woodland haze of a carpet of Bluebells is an unforgettable experience. Native Bluebells are an ancient woodland indicator. There are ancient woodlands not too far from home although, regrettably, I won’t be able to visit the best sites this year. Closer to home are examples of Spanish Bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, and potential hybrids. While experts find it difficult to come to definitive decisions, I thought I would share my current understanding and local pictures for discussion.

Bluebell path through ancient woodland with a carpet of native Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

Key Native Bluebell Characteristics

It is easier to identify the main characteristics of our native Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta first and then make comparisons. Diagnostic characteristics to look for are:

  • A drooping or nodding, one-sided inflorescence (raceme)
  • Narrow, tubular, blue flowers
  • Revolute or turned-back tips on open flowers
Native Bluebells droop or nod to one side. Their narrow, tubular flowers have tips that turn back in pronounced way
© Karen Netto (Andrews)
  • Examine the inside of the flowers. Native Bluebells should have cream pollen and anthers
To help identify native Bluebells, turn the flowers towards you and examine the anthers. They should be a cream colour with cream pollen © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Spanish or Hybrid?

Deciding between a Spanish Bluebell and a hybrid is more tricky. The Latin name of Spanish Bluebells is Hyacinthoides hispanica, although research suggests that our Spanish Bluebell is not the same as on the Iberian Peninsula. The hybrid is known as Hyacinthoides x massartiana. Their location close to human habitation is often a clue. Rather than floral carpets, I discover isolated collections of Bluebells in secondary woodland, hedgerows and close to gardens. Spanish Bluebells are an introduced species that has been planted or escaped from gardens. There has been an issue with the horticulture trade incorrectly selling non-native Bluebells as native plants. Sometimes Spanish Bluebells escape into the wild as a result of irresponsible disposable of garden waste in woods.

Look at the Leaves

If you are familiar with Native Bluebell leaves, then Spanish Bluebells leaves look markedly wider. In the absence of comparison, this doesn’t separate native, hybrid and Spanish Bluebells satisfactorily. It is merely the starting point to seek out other features.

  • Spanish Bluebells have wider leaves

Examine the non-native Flowers

  • Flowers are distributed around the stem: i.e. not one-sided
  • Inflorescences are more erect
  • Anthers and pollen are blue
  • If flower tips turn back slightly, it is not as marked a feature as with native Bluebells
  • Flowers have a more open, bell-like appearance (see above)
  • Plants have a more robust, glossy, garden appearance
Blue anthers and pollen of a Spanish Bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Protected Plant Status?

Our native Bluebells have protected status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. They should not be picked or collected from the wild. Nonetheless, native Bluebells remain at risk from dilution of the gene pool, erosion of ancient woodlands, infrastructure and housing developments and agricultural practices.

Hybrid Confusion

I have referred to a number of resources over the past two years about native, hybrid and Spanish Bluebells. Identifying a local hybrid remains uncertain. I don’t seem to have examples of the grey pollen mentioned by Cumbria Botany (see below). Morphology alone may not hold all the answers. Perhaps sampling different Bluebell populations for genetic analysis may provide a more conclusive answer? The distinct separation in local habitats helped me to put together the above guide from my own photographs. Other national resources are listed in the references section below.

Bluebell Woods

I have loved Bluebells since childhood. Some fantastic Bluebell woods were in easy reach of my home as a child. I have noticed however, that the Bluebells appear higher up the hills than in the past. Dog’s Mercury, Mercuralis perennis, and Ramsons, Allium ursinum, seem to dominate lower slopes of the forest floor. I understand that this may be due to high levels of nitrogen and potassium used in local agriculture. The Orchids that used to accompany the Bluebells are much rarer than I remember.

This year, we have to stay home due to Coronavirus. Visits to bluebell woods should not take place in spring 2020 (unless within easy walking distance of home and under strict social distancing regulations). I will therefore share some of my Bluebell wood photos of past years. Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, do not take kindly to trampling. Hopefully, 2020 will offer them a year of recovery and an even greater display to visit in spring 2021.

Bluebell Wood Photo Gallery

Native Bluebell carpet at Long Wood, Cheddar Gorge in spring 2019. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Cumbria Botany (2016): Bluebells – Hyacinthoides. Blog post of 11 May 2016. Last accessed 12 April 2020.

Garnett, G. J. L. et al. (2020): The complete plastome of Hyacinthoides non-scripta (L). Chouard ex Rothm (Asparagaceae). April 14 2015. Taylor & Francis Online. Mitochondrial DNA Part B Journal. Volume 5, 2020, Issue 1. Last accessed 12 April 2020.

Mitchley, J. (2015): It’s bluebell time, get thee to a bluebell wood. Dr M Goes Wild Blog post April 14 2015. Last accessed 12 April 2020.

Pilgrim, Emma & Hutchinson, Nicola (2014): Bluebells for Britain. A report on the 2003 Bluebells for Britain Survey. Plantlife. Last accessed 12 April 2020.

Rich, T. C. G., & Jermy, A. C. (1998): Hycinthoides. Plant Crib. BSBI & National Museums of Wales. Last accessed 12 April 2020

Woodland Trust (?): Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). Last accessed 12 April 2020.

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