The distinctive Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), and the wide spreading, woodland flower carpet it produces, is such a familiar spring sight in parts of Britain that there are few who could not identify the plant. Although it can be found in abundance in much of Britain, with the exception of some islands, it is rarely found in other parts of Europe and has no natural distribution anywhere else in the world.
As with so many of the British wild flowers, the Bluebell is also known by many colloquial and localised names, such as wild Hyacinth, which can create confusion. There are several other common name varieties which are listed by the Wildlife Trust (www.wildlifetrust.org.uk) along with many other Bluebell facts, some of which are contained here. Furthermore, the unrelated Harebell, which has a similar appearance, is also sometimes known as the Bluebell.
Bluebells grow from an underground bulb with the first shoots appearing in early January. The plant will then flower from April until May and occasionally into early June depending on the location. Plants found in south-western Britain, such as those in Cornwall, will flower significantly earlier than plants found further north or east, sometimes as much as two to three weeks earlier.
The most common habitat for the Bluebell is deciduous woodlands where the species tends to dominate the woodland floor for its flowering period. However, it can also be found in hedgerows, grassland and in Cornwall and Devon can be found in great abundance growing on cliffs.
The plant tends to thrive in well drained soil but there are plant colonies which will tolerate wetter soils and grow alongside riverbanks.
The flower of the Bluebell, as previously mentioned, is quite distinctive. Four to sixteen bell shaped, blue or violet/blue flowers are carried on the top of each long slender stalk which can measure up to 50 cm. This top heavy structure tends to make each flower spike droop. Leaves are long and spear like with long, narrow channels and are naturally tough to deter animals from eating them.
Bluebells have a very sweet, heady scent and it is often this strong smell which can indicate the presence of Bluebells long before the flower display is visible.
Some of Britain’s most ancient woodlands have very large Bluebell colonies due to the traditional practice of coppicing which created an environment in which Bluebells could thrive. It is thought that some of the plants in such woodlands may date back hundreds of years. Many Bluebell colonies however have been destroyed through habitat destruction and more recently one of the biggest threats to Bluebell survival has been that of Muntjac deer. This non-native species, which feeds on Bluebells, was introduced to Britain in the late 19th century and, as their numbers in some areas are high, the negative impact on Bluebells has been catastrophic. As a result, certain woodland trusts and conservation bodies are continuously monitoring and implementing programmes to protect Bluebells and other plant species from this threat and also that of illegal theft of bulbs.