The Spanish bluebell is on the loose in Britain's woods

This year's spectacular show of wild English bluebells faces a growing threat from a garden escapee

A A A

The desire of gardeners to have one of the great glories of the English countryside growing in their own backyards is threatening the very plant they adore. An insidious process involving garden centres, their customers and insects is doing great damage to that most emblematic of wildflowers, the native bluebell.

Until about a century ago the only bluebells that carpeted our woodlands with a violet-blue mist every May were plants of the native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta. We have half the entire world population in this country, and people from all round the globe come to see the extraordinary displays of these flowers in our woods. But H. non-scripta has a close relative, the Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, which was introduced to English gardens nearly 300 years ago.

For centuries all went well, until in 1909 came the first ominous sightings in the wild of the Spanish species, and its hybrid with the native plants. The mechanism for it getting "over the garden wall" could be someone throwing bulbs out, but, for the hybrid, it is far more likely that a pollinating bee, or other insect, has transferred the genetics of one species to the other. As so often is the case, the hybrid has proved more vigorous than either of its parents; and so, over the intervening decades, more and more hybrids have been seen in the wild. A survey by the wildflower charity Plantlife found that, already, one in six broadleaved woodland sites contains either the Spanish species or the hybrid.

Experts at the Forestry Commission fear the spread of the interlopers is getting worse, and predict that the native bluebell may be overtaken by hybrids in the future. Hugh Angus, a dendrologist and member of the volunteer wildflower group at the Forestry Commission's Westonbirt Arboretum, said: "Once you have a population of nothing but hybrids you have lost the original genetic material. If the hybrid is then affected by disease and there is none of the original species left, the threat is that the whole bluebell population could be in danger." He added: "There is no doubt in my mind that our generation and the next may well be the last to see native bluebell woods in all their glory."

What is making matters worse is that many garden centres sell plants labelled "Bluebell" which are the Spanish species, or the hybrid. Thus do the chances increase of hybrid bluebells proliferating in the wild. Mr Angus says: "I fear there is little we can do to stop this; at best we can merely slow it down. We certainly need to think more carefully about what we plant in our gardens."

Eliminating hybrids from the wild, even with unlimited resources, would be an impossible task, for spotting them is not always an easy task. The two main species are quite distinct – H. non-scripta is scented, its petals are a deeper blue, its flowers and leaves are more delicate, and the flower spike grows on one side of the stem only. But the fusions of them are sometimes so subtle that a DNA test is required to sort out the plant's genetics.

The one piece of good bluebell news this weekend concerns our weather. Unlike some recent years, when a warm March or April brought the flowers out early, this year's dismal early spring and prolonged cold has meant that 2013's bluebells will be two to three weeks later than usual. This, with a more concentrated flowering period, could mean sudden and spectacular shows.

For where to see them, visit the websites of the Forestry Commission, Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trusts, and National Trust.

Enjoy our native bluebells while you can.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?