The Spanish bluebell is on the loose in Britain's woods - Nature - Environment - The Independent

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
News
Residents of James Turner Street such as White Dee will have a chance to share their experiences of benefits on a Channel 4 spin-off show
peopleBenefits Street star says mixed-race children were subjected to trolling
Sport
Angel Di Maria
Football
News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
film
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
News
newsIn short, yes
Extras
indybest
News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
Life and Style
Jourdan Dunn gave TopShop’s Unique show some added glamour at London Fashion Week
fashion week
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

McAfee Security Engineer

£42000 - £48000 per annum + Site allowance: Ashdown Group: McAfee EPO Speciali...

English Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Experience...

Higher Level Teaching Assistants in Bradford and West Leeds

£65 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are currently seeking Higher L...

EYP

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Job opportunity for an Early years ...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories