Plant 130

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (L.) Chouard ex Rothm. (Asparagaceae)


English bluebell

The English bluebell is strongly associated with British deciduous woodlands in April and May. Carpets of nodding, blue flowers add charm to lowland landscapes but in the western parts of Britain (especially Scotland), and in upland regions, English bluebells may form extensive populations in meadows. The English bluebell's native range extends from northwest Spain along the Atlantic fringe of Europe to the Netherlands, but it is in Britain that it is particularly abundant; some estimates suggest half the species' global population occurs in Britain. The English bluebell is naturalised in other parts of Europe and in parts of North America, where it may become invasive. Throughout its range the bluebell occurs on a wide range of different soil types.

The English bluebell has been placed in numerous genera since the eighteenth century, including Scilla, Endymion and Agraphis. However, the specific name only starts to make sense when associated with Linnaeus's original generic name, Hyacinthus. The name honours a flower, from Greek mythology, that apparently sprang from the blood of the young man killed by Apollo, and was marked by the god in his sorrow. The specific name is a reference to the bluebell flower being unmarked.

Within the small genus Hyacinthoides, Hyacinthoides non-scripta forms a clade with three Iberian species. One species in this group, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) has become notorious in plant conservation. Plants described as Spanish bluebells are widely planted in British gardens and have become naturalised, especially around centres of population. But the English bluebell remains far more common than the Spanish bluebell, especially in the damper areas of Britain. However, many populations of English bluebell are likely to be within pollination distance of their Spanish cousin, creating opportunity from interspecific hybridisation and competition.

English bluebells and Spanish bluebells are readily distinguished. Hyacinthoides non-scripta flowers are dark blue, arranged in one-sided inflorescences, with stamens that have unequal filaments and produce white pollen. In contrast, Hyacinthoides hispanica flowers are pale blue, come out from all sides of the inflorescences and have stamens with more or less equal filaments and blue pollen. The characteristics of the hybrid (Hyacinthus x massartiana) show a range of variation between those of the parents, indicating the hybrid bluebell may have a complex origin. The picture is made more difficult still since the cultivated Spanish bluebell, which is morphologically different to individuals in the species' Spanish range, may also be complex hybrids.

Further reading

Grundmann M et al 2010. Phylogeny and taxonomy of the bluebell genus Hyacinthoides, Asparagaceae [Hyacinthaceae]. Taxon 59: 68-82.

Kohn DD 2009. Are native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) at risk from alien congenerics? Evidence from distributions and co-occurrence in Scotland. Biological Conservation 142: 61-74.

Rix M 2004. Hyacinthoides non-scripta Hyacinthaceae. Curtis's Botanical Magazine 21: 20-25.

Stephen Harris