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29 May 2015

Bluebells For Your Garden

There are few lovelier sights in nature than a bluebell wood, and bluebells can commonly be seen flowering in gardens at this time of year. However, all is not what it seems.

Britain is lucky to have half the world's population of the bluebell, but rather than the native variety, most gardens probably support the Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica, which has wishy-washy, grey-blue, upright spikes. Introduced in 1680, it is almost impossible to eradicate as the bulbs drive deep into the ground, so having failed to dig them out, many gardeners are forced to tolerate them. The bulbs will survive in compost heaps and landfill for years.

If you are considering planting bluebells in your garden, it's imperative that you plant our native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta - rather than the Spanish invader. The best way to guarantee authenticity is to buy them from a reputable source. If you are at a nursery or garden centre check for the vivid violet-blue colour and the arching stem of flowers held on one side all hanging downwards.

Spanish bluebells aren't just bad news from an appearance point of view. The bees carry pollen from the invader to truly native colonies and strong, vigorous hybrids appear, ruining the authenticity of the native strain. Hybrids were first identified in 1963 and most colonies close to urban areas contain them. More remote colonies are purer and must stay that way because keeping native plant species intact is vital for biodiversity. Native flora and fauna are indelibly linked, and once a species is lost, it is gone forever and this has a knock-on effect.

Bluebells flower under deciduous trees most notably under native beech Fagus sylvatica, and in the garden can be planted under green-leaved deciduous shrubs and trees. These might include an ornamental cherry such as Prunus 'Kursar', or the shrubbier guelder rose Viburnum opulus.

If you buy bulbs in the green, you can check that you have the correct plant by looking at the colour and flower. These are planted in spring, watered and left to naturalise - plant single bulbs if possible. Dry bulbs are available in autumn and should be planted as soon as possible at twice the depth of the bulb. Once planted, bluebells should return provided that the soil is well drained and not waterlogged in winter.

It is also possible to grow bluebells from seed, so you should get the true native variety. The seeds should be planted in pots which are then placed where you want the bluebells to grow when planted out. Starting them in pots means that you don't accidentally strim or pull out the growing seedlings before you can identify them as bluebells.

Good luck with growing bluebells - just make sure that you have Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the British variety.
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