Flowering en masse, the English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, makes a spectacular display in its natural woodland setting, carpeting the floor before the tree leaves have fully unfurled. It’s thought that 25-49 per cent of the world’s bluebell population is found in the British Isles, making it a nationally important plant. A small bulbous perennial, the English bluebell spreads easily in the right conditions. Bluebells will grow happily in a shady garden, and they make good spring ground cover.
In recent years, our native bluebell has hybridised with the larger, Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, which was introduced as a garden plant in the 17th Century. This has posed problems for our native bluebell, which could eventually die out due to hybridisation. The Spanish bluebell is larger and has a much more vigorous growth habit than our native variety. Hybrids (which are fertile and therefore able to reproduce themselves) are the most commonly grown bluebell in British gardens. They look similar to the native bluebell but don’t have the beautiful ‘drooping’ quality that English bluebells have. Also their petals are lighter in colour (sometimes pink) and their leaves are thicker. Hybrids are also able to hybridise with the native bluebell.
While Spanish and hybrid bluebells are not on the Government’s list of invasive plants, the charity Plantlife recommends that you don’t grow them if you live near a native bluebell colony, for example near a woodland. This prevents any accidental hybridisation and therefore protects the native British bluebell.
How to grow bluebells
Grow bluebells in moist but well-drained soil in partial shade. They’re particularly suited to growing beneath deciduous trees, which provide dappled shade in spring and deeper shade in summer. You’ll get the best results from planting bluebells in the green but it’s also possible to grow bluebells from seed. if they’re growing in grass, avoid mowing until after the leaves have fully dies down. Mulch in autumn with a thick layer of leaf mould, to mimic the habitat found on the woodland floor.
Find out more about growing bluebells, below.
Where to grow bluebells
Bluebells thrive in moist, well-drained soil, ideally with plenty of leaf litter. Partial shade is best but they will also tolerate some sun.
How to plant bluebells
The easiest most reliable method is to plant bluebells ‘in the green’ in late spring, after they have finished flowering. Plant in naturalistic drifts 10cm deep and approximately 10cm apart. It’s possible to grow bluebells from seed.
Bluebells look wonderful growing in drifts in woodland. Find out how to create this effect in your own garden – Monty Don explains what conditions bluebells need, how deeply to plant the bulbs, and how to create a natural-looking colony in grass:
How to care for bluebells
Where bulbs are planted in grass, don’t cut the grass until after the leaves have died back.
How to propagate bluebells
You can plant dry bluebell bulbs in autumn but you’re more likely to have success by planting the bulbs ‘in the green’, in late spring. Divide and replant the clumps after flowering and before the leaves die back. Bear in mind that it’s illegal to dig up clumps of bluebells in the wild, and this method applies to bluebells growing in gardens, only.
You can also save seed from bluebells and sow them immediately in pots of compost. Bluebell seeds can take several months to germinate and need a period of cold weather to get them going. However, this method means you could end up with hybrids. It’s much better to buy bluebell seed from a reputable supplier, for the best results.
Growing bluebells: problem solving
Bluebells are generally pest and disease free. The main problem is hybridisation. Also Spanish and hybrid bluebells are very difficult to remove once they have established. If you want to remove bluebells you will likely have to make several attempts.
Find out how to identify Spanish bluebells and how to get rid of them, in our Quick Tips video with David Hurrion:
- Hyacinthoides non-scripta – our native bluebell has dark blue, nodding flowers, with curled back petals and a delicate fragrance. The pollen is white, and the foliage is narrow and recurved.
- Hyacinthoides hispanica – the Spanish bluebell is larger than our native bluebell. The flowers are more open and have blue polln, and no scent.
- Hyacinthoides x massartiana – this is the hybrid mix of British and Spanish bluebells and is similar to our native bluebell, but has characteristics of both parent varieties.