English Bluebells, Spanish Bluebells & Bees
- And How To Remove Spanish Bluebells

Bumblebee foraging on English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scriptaBumblebee foraging on English bluebell

English bluebells are fragrant, beautiful, and loved by bees.  They are native to the UK, but cross breeding with Spanish bluebells poses a threat.  How to spot the difference and get rid of Spanish bluebells.

A carpet of native bluebells in the woodlands where I live.

Bees love English bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta – and so do I!  The fragrance in the woods in May, and their lovely, delicate drooping heads, not to mention the sound of busy bees as they buzz from flower to flower, is something I look forward to every year.

However, I have become increasingly concerned by the appearance of Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) in my garden, and in the woods and along one of the country walks near where I live.

I’m going to have to get my gardening boots on and start remove them from my garden! 

I didn't deliberately plant the Spanish bluebells - they hitched a lift - I suspect - with some plants from a neighbour, and popped up in three places in my garden (a lesson in that, I think!).

As for the few I have seen in the woods, I will contact the local warden responsible for the woods, in case the Spanish bluebells haven't been spotted yet.


Why are Spanish bluebells a problem?

I am not against non-native species for the sake of it – it really depends on the characteristics of the plant.  Some non-native plants provide valuable pollen and nectar for bees,  (and it should be remembered that many fruit and vegetables grown for humans – also are not native!).   Unfortunately, however, the Spanish bluebell is invasive, and it is cross breeding with the native English bluebell to the extent that there is real concern that Hyacinthoides non-scripta could become extinct in the longer term.

Again, woods near me - this particular site is full of English bluebells and bees.

But why should we care?

  • English bluebells typically have a slightly earlier flowering period than their Spanish cousins, and provide a valuable early nectar source for bees and other pollinators in particular habitats.  I certainly see lots of bees on the English bluebells - you can literally hear the bees buzzing in the bluebell patches in the woods where I live.  In contrast, in my experience, Spanish bluebells are not as popular with pollinators - perhaps because they are a little later, by which time, more valuable food sources are available.  (Hybrids may get visitors, however).
  • English bluebells provide important indicators of ancient woodland habitat, which in itself can provide valuable biodiversity indicators.
  • It takes years and years for the native bluebells to increase their territory, with a seed taking about 5 years to develop into a bulb.   They are fussy with regard to their habitat requirements.

In contrast, Spanish bluebells spread readily by seeds, but also by underground runners.  The runners produce new bulbs.  They are rather thuggish in their spreading and growth habit, and will grow and spread just about anywhere.

What's the difference between English bluebells and Spanish bluebells?

Flower Shape And Form Of Plant:

English bluebells:

  • Slender, narrow bell shaped flower, with the ends of the petals curled up at the ends.
  • Delicate - even 'modest' in appearance, with a 'drooping' stem, as if bent over.
  • Slender leaves.


Spanish bluebells:

  • Wider bell-shaped flower - more 'star' or 'conical' shaped.
  • Flower is more open.
  • Upright stem.
  • Flowers larger and more showy.
  • Broader, larger leaves.
The top, narrow leaf is from the native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, whereas the broader, larger leaf is from the Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica.

Fragrance:

English bluebells:

Lovely fragrance - some would describe it as cool and sweet, others may describe it as fresh and sweet.  Anyway, it's very appealing (no wonder the bees love it!).

Spanish bluebells:

No fragrance.

Colour

English bluebells:

  • Petals are deep blue, but sometimes white (very rarely, a pink specimen may be seen).
  • Anthers with the pollen are pale, creamy white.

Spanish bluebells:

  • Petals are pale blue, but sometimes, pinker or white versions are seen.
  • Anthers with the pollen are blue.
Above, white and pale blue Hyacinthoides hispanica

Hybrids

Hybrids may have a combination of the above characteristics!

This means, you may, for example, come across specimens looking more like Spanish bluebells, but

- with a little scent and pale anthers and pollen;
- a drooping flower stem;
- petals curved upward at the tips.



Spanish bluebells and the law

In the UK:

It is not an offence to have Spanish bluebells on your land (they were introduced to the UK by the Victorians).

However:

  • they have been listed as a Schedule 9 species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and;
  • it is an offence to plant them, and;
  • it is an offence to allow them to spread into the wild.


So, the law is a little murky in one sense (probably in recognition of the fact that they can inadvertently end up in the garden - as was the case with me), but at the very least, for the sake of the native  English bluebell,  then if you find Spanish bluebells in your garden, please remove them as soon as possible.

Never plant them intentionally.

Note that offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can result in possible fines and prison sentences!

According to the UK Goverment website:

"You could be fined up to £5,000 or be sent to prison for up to 2 years if you allow contaminated soil or plant material from any waste you transfer to spread into the wild." (1)

Also, please note that it is an offence to remove the native wild bluebells from their habitats.

How to get rid of Spanish bluebells

Spanish bluebells are an invasive species, and it's best to remove them.

The most important thing is to dig into the ground and remove both bulbs and runners as soon as possible.  This is what I will have done, by the time this blog goes live!

Allow the plant material to dry out, and burn the waste. 

Make sure the wastage (all remains of bulbs and runners) is fully burnt before adding the waste to a compost heap.

Do NOT simply remove them and put them in the compost heap - they are likely to survive.  Do not allow plant waste to get into the wild.

Keep a careful look out the following year for any signs of plants popping up in case any bulbs or runners were missed, and take action again.

Eventually, you'll get rid of the plants.

Importantly, please help spread the word, and encourage other gardeners and conservationists to take action.

Be careful when pruchasing bulbs from suppliers, and be sure that they have not been lifted from the wild, and that they are not hybrids.

Refs:

(1) Prevent harmful weeds and invasive non-native plants spreading   https://www.gov.uk/guidance/prevent-the-spread-of-harmful-invasive-and-non-native-plants





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