There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue.
Abbie Jury’s is on the hunt for pure English bluebells
This was through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.
Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”.
Also, the time at which the bluebells are in growth coincides with the spring flush of grass, so mowing is a problem. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.
We solved this problem by planting bluebells in the wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.
It took English writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me.
Hyacinthoides non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. Spanish Hyacinthoides
hispanica is stronger-growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent. There are also natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and hybrids have characteristics from both parents.
I had previously tried to unravel the species.
I had headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused – I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book The Sceptical Gardener – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – the majority of bluebells growing in British gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids. It seems likely then that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.
I examined bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesised, that seemed the most likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great-grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.
I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.
A word about white or pink bluebells: While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of
Hyacinthoides non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant.
Bluebells, by definition should be mostly blue.
A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed. That is my opinion. ✤
It’s likely that bluebells in New Zealand are Spanish or hybrids, rather than pure English bluebells.
White and pink bluebells can be charming novelties.