English v Spanish bluebells: Spot the difference!

Spanish v English: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left

The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.

Another bluebell came onto the scene when the Victorians introduced the Spanish bluebell, a close relative of our British one, into their gardens. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, it made the great escape over the garden wall and since then has been popping up in woods, hedgerows, and in roadside verges.

‘So what’s the big deal?’ you’re probably wondering. For a long time, wildlife conservationists were worried that the two would hybridise leading to the pure English bluebell eventually disappearing, or that the Spanish one would oust our native one and there’d be another red squirrel-grey squirrel situation.

But recently, scientists have found that our own bluebell is much more robust, is more fertile and can elbow its Spanish cousin out of the way. Thank goodness, so we can continue to enjoy the wonderful woodland spectacle for many generations to come.

How do you tell the difference between the two types of bluebell? When you see them together, it’s obvious. But when you’ve only ever seen them apart, it can be more tricky.

  1. The first clue is the colour – English bluebells are that intense blue which never gets accurately reproduced in any of the photos I take, whereas the Spanish ones are light, ‘powdery’ blue. I always describe the Spanish flowers as being like pixie-hats whereas a pixie wouldn’t be able to squash its head into the longer and thinner English flower.
  2. The main give-away, though, is how the flowers grow on the stem: English bluebells hand down from one side of the stem which bends over at the top but the Spanish flowers grow all around the bolt upright stem.

Both types of bluebell are members of the hyacinth family – yep, the same as the flower we like to grow before Christmas. Look carefully at the individual flowers and you’ll see that they’re the same shape.

The Scottish, however, call the bluebell a harebell and the harebell a bluebell. Confused? Not surprising – basically, if you’re up in Scotland, just point to whatever flower you’re talking about!

Standish wood - bluebells and lots of trees May 2018 C Aistrop
  Standish Woods, near Stroud, is a fantastic bluebell wood with car park next door and good public access

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