There is some­thing wildly ro­man­tic about a proper blue­bell wood. I have never for­got­ten be­ing en­tranced by the haze of blue.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS -

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.

The English

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.

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