Signs of spring: the Bluebell

Bluebells and small child by Tom Marshall

Bluebells by Tom Marshall

Few sights and smells can be as characteristic of a Welsh spring season as a broadleaf woodland carpeted with bluebells and the heady scent that rises from them in the warmth of a fine day. Amongst the most widely recognised of our native flora, the bluebell is an indicator of ancient woodland- principally occurring in woodlands that predate the year 1600 AD, and is widespread across Wales.

Why not visit one of our bluebell woods and experience the magic? We have listed just some of the reserves at the bottom of this page.

Bluebells Neil Aldridge

Bluebells Neil Aldridge

Our native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) actually occurs relatively widely over western Europe, including the Iberian peninsula, western France, and east towards the Netherlands. However in most of mainland Europe it is more sparsely populated; it occurs at its highest densities in Britain, making Britain the true home of the bluebell woodland.

Whilst they are often prolific where they occur, bluebells actually spread quite slowly, because their seeds are heavy. This means they are slow to colonise new areas, though they may spread gradually into new, young woodland adjacent to an existing bluebell woodland, or occur in plantations on ancient woodland sites. However, whilst they may move only slowly, they are remarkably persistent in areas where the woodland canopy has long since been lost, and occasionally be seen in pastures, coastal grasslands and even occasionally on heathland. Our own Skomer Island is a prime example of bluebells thriving in an ‘atypical’ habitat.

Inevitably for a species so iconic in our culture, its presence in folklore and uses through history are significant. A glue manufactured from bluebells was historically used in arrow construction. Starch from the bulbs has been used in laundry, and various medical properties have been exploited over time. Bluebells contain toxic glycosides, and are poisonous to humans; problems have also been reported in cattle, horses and dogs that have consumed the plant. Folklore names bluebells ‘fairy bells’, when people believed the bells rang to call fairies together, but that any human who heard the bluebells ringing was doomed to die.

Climate change may now be influencing our bluebells. The first flowering dates of bluebells at Kew have been recorded by the Botanic Gardens’ staff for over fifty years. Their monitoring has shown that the first flowering dates in any one year can vary by a matter of weeks depending on the severity of the preceding winter- much as this year, our bluebells are noticeably later because of the protracted and severe winter weather we have just experienced. However, when they examined five year averages that account for these short term variations, they have found that average opening dates have moved forward by as much as two weeks over the last thirty years.

Although the species is not considered to be under immediate threat, with over 50% of the global population estimated to occur within the UK, we clearly have responsibilities to these stunning flowers, as their principal custodians. One significant threat that has emerged relatively recently is hybridisation with the non-native Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). This species was introduced to the UK by the late 17th century but in the last hundred years or became a very popular garden plant. In the last thirty years, they have escaped widely from gardens and have been able to hybridise with our native bluebells. A hybrid bluebell, Hyacinthoides x massartiana, formed between the native and Spanish forms now appears to be more common than its Spanish parent. The hybrid has almost completely replaced our native species in some urban areas and represents a real threat to the future genetic integrity of our native species.

Spanish Bluebell by Richard Burkmar

Spanish Bluebell by Richard Burkmar

If you wish to remove Spanish or hybrid bluebells from your land, you can do so, but please act with care, ensuring correct identification, and the right action in the right place. The easiest way to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells is to look at the colour of the pollen; if it is creamy-white then the bluebell is native. If it is pale green or blue, it is definitely not native. Plantlife International recommends that when undertaking management of non-natives, “they are dug up once the plants have finished flowering, with their leaves intact, and left to dry out in the sun for as much as a month. This will ensure that the bulb has been killed. Only when the bulbs are dead should they be composted”. Composting live plants can inadvertently help to spread them. Please remember never to dig up native bluebells or to dig up any plants on land belonging to others. (More on hybrids and Spanish bluebells in our Bluebells in Peril article from 2012)

Native bluebells are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981) as amended, which prohibits the digging up of the bulbs from the countryside and prohibits landowners removing the plants from their land for sale. In fact the trade of wild bluebell bulbs or seeds is an offence without a special licence issued by government.

Where to see bluebells on our reserves!

Glamorgan: Carmarthenshire:
Coed y Bwl  Poor Man’s Wood/ Gallt y Tlodion
Gelli Hir Dynevor / Dynefwr Castle Woods
Kilvrough Pembrokeshire:
Coed y Bedw Skomer Island
Brynna Woods and Llanharan Marsh Skokholm Island
Ceredigion: Pengelli Forest
Coed Penglanowen  Merthyr Tydfil:
Penderi Cliffs  Taf Fechan
 Old Warren Hill