Friday, 24 May 2013

Week 19: Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Bluebells were @SpeciesofUK from 14th to 20th April 2013.

Bluebells are one of the truly British wildflowers. Almost half the global bluebell population is found in the UK. Yes, half![1]

Bluebells in the UK
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Richard Parmiter]

Aside from the UK, bluebells are native to Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain.[2]

What are bluebells?

Bluebells is the name for the eleven plant species of the genus Hyacinthoides. Only one of these is native to the UK, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the ‘common bluebell’ or to us, just ‘bluebells.'[3]

[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © anemoneprojectors]

Bluebells are bulbous perrenials, ‘bulbous’ meaning they survive as bulbs underground during winter and ‘perrenial’ meaning they live for more than two years.[4]

Bluebells are most associated with deciduous woodland. They're also found in hedgerows, shady banks and under bracken.[5]

Bluebells in Woodland
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © findgareth]

Bluebells in a Hedgerow
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © shufgy]

Bluebells have a rich nectar, a favoured food for many butterflies and other insects.[6]

Red Admiral on Bluebells
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © surfinscottie]

Bluebells go by many other names in the UK, including: Bell bottle, Bluebottle, Calver keys, Common English bluebell, Cover keys, Crake feet, Crow bells, Crow leek, Cuckooflower, Culver keys, Dog leek, Fairy flower, Harebell, Single gussies, Spreading bluebell, Squill, Wild hyacinth and Wood bells.[7] The list goes on!

How do you recognise a bluebell?

Bluebell leaves are 'linear' - long (up to 50 cm) and very narrow. There are three to six of them on a stem.[8]

Bluebell Leaves
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © anenomeprojectors]

Bluebell Buds
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons  © Hairy Caterpillar]

The flowers occur on a 'raceme' - a long arching stem on which four to sixteen flowers grow on small sub-stems. [9] Bluebell flowers are sweetly fragrant, narrow, pendant and tubular. They are violet-blue or, occasionally, pink or white.[10]

Bluebell 'raceme' of Flowers
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Fabio Veronesi]

White Bluebells
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Nick Turland]

The petals of bluebells curl back notably at the tip, a particular characteristic of this flower.[11]

Bluebell Petals "recurved tips"
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © surreydweller]

Seeds develop on the flower head like this:

Bluebell Seeds
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Cheryl Moorehead]

Spanish Invasion

As well as our native bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, there is another, invasive species in the UK which has become quite common - “Spanish bluebells,” Hyacinthoides hispanica.[12]

The Spanish bluebell is a threat to our bluebells because the two species readily and successfully hybridise.[13]

Here are some easy ways to tell a Spanish bluebell from a bluebell:

1. Spanish bluebell petals are PALER and LARGER and don’t CURL BACK as much at the tips.

Spanish Bluebells
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Valter Jacinto]

2. The Spanish bluebell stem is more ERECT.

Spanish Bluebells
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Coanri/Rita]

3. The anthers are BLUE rather than cream. (I find this to be the surest way to tell the difference.)

Spanish Bluebells showing the blue anthers
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Steve Guttman NYC]

Native Bluebells showing cream anthers
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Jamie Homer]

4. Spanish bluebells have LITTLE SCENT.

Toxins and Glue…

Bluebells contain toxic glycosides. People ocassionally mistake the bulbs for spring onions and are poisoned.[14]

A glue obtained from bluebells was traditionally used as a means of sticking flights to arrow shafts and in book-binding.[15]

The bulb is reported to have diuretic and styptic properties. Bluebells have been used in traditional medicine to treat leucorrhoea (discharge of mucus from the vagina). Starch derived from the bulb has been used in laundering.[16]

A Country of Bluebells

The UK, and England is particular, becomes a country of bluebells in the spring. They’re everywhere!

A Landscape of Blue!
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Andrew Pescod]

Bluebells are strictly protected under law. It's illegal to dig up bluebells from the countryside or to remove them from your own land for sale.[17]

On average, bluebells flower two weeks earlier now than they did 30 years ago, due to the warming climate.[18]

Strange but true…

Have you heard about the Bluebell Railway? It is an 11 mile heritage line running between east and west Sussex.[19] The Bluebell Railway was in the news in 2013 when it was reconnected to the national rail network in March![20]

Bluebell Railway
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © interbeat]

If you enjoyed reading about bluebells, you might also enjoy my blogpost on snowdrops.

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