Wildlife Column: ‘New’ bluebell sweeping through

In the 1600s, horticulturalists brought back from Europe a new variety of ‘bluebell’, the ‘Spanish’ bluebell.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 16 May, 2019, 12:51
Sheffield weather expert Professor Ian Rotherham.

A twist in this story is that essentially there are several different ‘species’ of bluebell found through Western Atlantic Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, and just into North Africa; but they are geographic variants of what was once the same species.

Separated by glacial periods of cold and then recovery over thousands of years each isolated population has evolved to be slightly different. The so-called Spanish bluebell is bigger, brasher, with flowers more open than the British one.

Bluebells

Moreover, it lacks the pendulous stems, tightly bell-shaped flowers and glorious fragrance of the British native. The imported bulbs were taken into gardens and like our native ones are pollinated by bees. What happened next is particularly interesting as the imported plants’ pollen was overwhelmed by that from surrounding woods and the plants hybridised.

Furthermore, the hybrids back-crossed both ways and back again! In captivity, gardeners selectively bred ‘giant’ forms of the hybrid and the native; all for garden displays.

Essentially, in cultivation the hybrids and giant forms are far more striking than the native and these are the ones that were chosen by gardeners and which remain popular today. They lack the scent of the native but they are stunning to look at.

What we see today in the countryside, both urban and rural, is the increasing establishment of the hybrid and quite obvious hybrids between the wild native and the garden variety ‘hybrids’ too.

The pure Spanish bluebell is actually incredibly rare now in Britain. Clearly, as might be expected, conservationists are worried by this take-over and climate change is favouring the new hybrids too.

Hopefully, there are just so many wild native bluebells out there, and so much wild bluebell pollen in our woods, that the native will survive.

However, in your garden the bluebells will almost certainly be the hybrids and their pollen can travel as far as a bee can fly to carry hybrid pollen deep into ancient woods. So there is change afoot!