13 May 2012

Bluebell Intrigue

Us gardening types know our native bluebells are threatened by imported Spanish bluebells.

(Do we have any native wildlife NOT under threat, for heaven’s sake? Red squirrels, ladybirds, crayfish ...)

But what is the difference between a native and a Johnny foreigner bluebell? The National History Museum has a detailed set of pages that describe each type. It appears that as far as size is concerned there is little difference between the two. For example, the leaves of a native can be 20-45cm long, and those of a Spanish bluebell, 20-50cm. Given the variance of size amongst a large population covering a woodland floor I doubt that extra 5cm would be obvious.

I do like to pin things down with numbers though, so I did a little investigation of my own by measuring 10 bluebells in my garden, which I assume are Spanish straight from the garden centre, and 10 from Styal Woods in Cheshire, where natives thrive. Yes, average leaf lengths were indeed the same at 21.5cm and 21.75cm respectively. Leaf width did vary, with the bluebells from the garden being wider than natives, which reflects the official expectation. However, the conclusion that has to be made from this little unscientific exercise is that you don’t need to go wielding a ruler into the woods, because bluebells of whatever nationality are more or less similar in size.

Given the romance of these beautiful flowers it is fitting that it is by eye and nose rather than ruler that species is found. The differences are more discernible in the shape of the flowers themselves. Native flowers are more droopy (why am I not surprised?) with petals that roll back, compared to cultivated ones that have widely spreading petals. And this does seem to be demonstrated in the photos I took in each location. The flowers on the left are native and do seem to be longer and more curled.

The final distinction however is perhaps the best reason we should be trying to secure the existence of our bluebell woods: native flowers are strongly and sweetly scented. It is not simply because they are ours; it is because they are wonderful in their own right.

Now, here is something I bet you didn’t know about bluebells. The latin name for British bluebells is Hyacinthoides non-scripta. ‘Hyacinthoides’ is the plant’s genus, i.e. all bluebells are of this taxa, and means ‘like a hyacinth’. The ‘non-scripta’ species name is intriguing. It refers to the Greek myth surrounding the beautiful young Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, lover of the god Apollo. One day they were happily (search for the pun I didn’t use here) throwing a discus to each other. Hyacinth ran to catch it to impress Apollo, but was tragically struck by the discus and died. Distraught, Apollo made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood and wrote (or marked with his tears) ‘alas’ on the petal as a sign of his sorrow. ‘Non-inscripta’ means ‘unwritten’ – it was not written on by Apollo. It is as if the taxonomist who named the flower was saying bluebells are like Hyacinths, ‘but not that one.’

To add to the intrigue earlier taxonomists called British bluebells ‘Endymion non-scripta’. Once again there is the association with a beautiful Greek boy.