Friday, 8 April 2016

Wildflower of the Month: Bluebell

Scottish Bluebell or Harebell
Image: C. Ferguson-Smyth
Bluebells are coming into bloom across the country - we've already had reports of them in flower as far north as Ipswich and Monmouthshire, so they should be out further north later this month. 

But can we be sure which Bluebell we are looking at? 

Common names of plants are not always helpful here. The Scottish Bluebell or Harebell is not confined to Scotland, although it might become so in the future - Harebells are in decline in England and were classified as Near Threatened on the 2014 England Red List

Scottish populations appear to be doing fine. 

Keep a look out for Harebells later in the summer, once the English and "Spanish Bluebells" have finished flowering. 


English Bluebell
Image courtesy of J. Crellin
The "English Bluebell" should really be called British Bluebell as this distribution map shows - the UK has around 50% of the world's bluebell woods. 

The true English Bluebell, the Spanish Bluebell and the hybrid (which is also the most common "Bluebell" planted in gardens) have distinctive differences which help us tell them apart but they will keep on hybridising! 

The offspring can look like a mixture of mummy and daddy (or granny and grandpa) but it's not always easy to tell!

Here's a beginners' guide to identifying which bluebell is which:


Scottish Bluebell or Harebell flowers later and has a pale blue flower which nods in the breeze. It’s more closely related to Bellflowers.

English Bluebell has the lovely scent, flowerhead made up of lots of dark blue flowers on one side so the whole flower bends over. Boy bits in middle of flowers are cream-coloured. Leaves are narrower than the hybrid (often called "Spanish Bluebell" but it isn't - the genuine Spanish Bluebell looks quite different, with more divided petals, and you don't see it so often in the UK).

Hybrid "Spanish" Bluebell
Image courtesy of J. Crellin
 
The hybrid Bluebell is more robust, paler blue flowers and not much scent. Flowers are all round the stem so it’s more upright. Boy bits are blue. 

More info on how to tell bluebells apart here and here.

We're asking people to keep an eye out for Bluebells this month and you can tweet your photos of them to @BSBIbotany using the hashtags #WildflowerHour and  #WildfloweroftheMonth

You can use this link to see maps of where the various species of Bluebell grow: http://bsbi.org/maps
And this one for more info about each of the species:

Just type the common name into the search box.

I'll be talking about Bluebells to Fiona Stalker on BBC Radio Scotland's 'Out for the Weekend' programme this afternoon and encouraging plant-lovers to get out Bluebell- spotting this spring and let us know what they find. 

So now you have a great excuse to take a leisurely walk around your local bluebell woods, inhaling deeply (to confirm your identification of English Bluebell, of course!) Don't forget to keep a straight face and refer to this activity as Engaging in Scientific Research for the BSBI. Heaven forbid that anyone should think you were off playing in the woods and sniffing pretty flowers...