Bluebells – the Spanish Invasion

Wednesday 10th June 2015

Native bluebells at Wyming BrookNative bluebells at Wyming Brook

They are taking over our woodlands! Spanish bluebells are non-native invaders who are escaping from our gardens, moving into our woodlands and hybridising with our much loved native bluebells.

Sheffield alone has 400 hectares of woodland (over 10% of its total area) with over 2 million trees and over 160 publicly accessible woodlands. This is more than any other city in the country.

Among these are ancient bluebell woods, such as Woolley Wood and Smithy Woods. Native bluebells are an indicator of the site of ancient woodland, which is woodland that existed before 1600, and may link back to the wildwood that grew across Britain after the last Ice Age.

For centuries people have enjoyed the strong, sweet smell of English bluebells in spring, their deep blue hue and slender flowers; but in recent years their Spanish cousins have infiltrated from nearby gardens, and dumped garden waste, changing the nature of our indigenous bluebell woods. The Spanish variety are paler blue and often white or pink, the stems are stiffer, with wider bell shaped flowers all the way round. They have little or no scent. They cross-breed with the native variety. At Greno Woods, which is managed by Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, there are Spanish bluebells which have spread from nearby gardens onto the outer section, hybrids in the middle, and native bluebells only in the deepest woodland.

Half the world's population of bluebells is in the UK, and although still common they are threatened not only by hybridisation with the Spanish variety, but by habitat loss and collection from the wild. One in six bluebells found in broadleaved woodland in the UK is now found to be Spanish. In urban areas this is probably higher.

The bluebell wood in spring is one of nature's most stunning displays, but the heady scent and deep blue carpet of the native bluebell wood could soon become harder to find as the Spanish invasion continues. Please consider whether you need Spanish bluebells in your garden if you live near a woodland – native varieties are available from select garden suppliers. And please never pick native bluebells or dump garden waste in woodlands.