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Hyacinthoides non-scripta (bluebell)

Bluebells, almost half the global population of which is found in the UK, can create a stunning carpet of woodland colour during the spring.

A bluebell

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Image: Peter Gasson)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (L.) Rothm.

Common name: 

bluebell, wild hyacinth, wood bell, fairy flower, bell bottle

Conservation status: 

Widespread, protected by legislation and not considered to be under immediate threat (although concerns exist regarding cross-breeding and climate change).

Habitat: 

Woodland, hedgerows, shady banks, under bracken on coastal cliffs and uplands.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, indicator of ancient woodland, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

All plant parts contain glycosides and are poisonous. The sap can cause contact dermatitis.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Asparagales
Family: 
Asparagaceae
Genus: Hyacinthoides

About this species

Hyacinthoides non-scripta has a bulb and nodding heads of blue flowers; it is native to western Europe, where it is found in deciduous woodlands, flowering in late April or early May. A woodland floor covered with flowering bluebells is a stunning sight, and often forms a popular, seasonal tourist attraction.

H. non-scripta was for a long time known as Scilla nutans and then Endymion non-scriptus, and may well be encountered in earlier literature under these names. Bluebells grow best in undisturbed soil and need plenty of light in early spring. Their rich nectar provides food for many butterflies and other insects. Bluebells contain toxic glycosides and humans can be poisoned if the bulbs are mistaken for spring onions and eaten. Cattle, horses and dogs have been reported to suffer digestive problems after eating bluebell leaves.

Synonym: 

Endymion non-scriptus, Scilla non-scripta, Scilla nutans

Genus: 
Hyacinthoides

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Hyacinthoides non-scripta grows wild in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain, and has become naturalised elsewhere in Europe.

Description

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)

A bulb with flower stalks up to 50 cm tall and 3-6 linear leaves up to 50 cm long and 25 mm wide. Each flowering stem bends downwards towards the tip and bears 4-16 flowers along one side. The pendent, strongly sweetly scented flowers are violet-blue, or rarely pink or white. The perianth (petals and sepals) is tubular-bell-shaped, 14-20 mm long, with the free lobes curling up at the tips. The outer three stamens are fused to the perianth for over three quarters of their length. The anthers are cream-coloured.

Threats and conservation

In the UK, Hyacinthoides non-scripta is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) which prohibits landowners from removing bluebells from their land for sale, and prohibits anyone from digging up bulbs from the countryside. Its listing on Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998 made trade in wild bluebell bulbs or seeds an offence (unless special licenses are issued by the UK Government or devolved administrations permitting sustainable collection of seeds). Current threats to bluebells include the loss of ancient woodland habitat, the illegal collection of bulbs and cross-breeding with non-native bluebells.

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Image: Wolfgang Stuppy)

There is some concern that non-native bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica and numerous Hyacinthoides hybrids and cultivars) that have escaped from cultivation may pose a threat to British H. non-scripta populations. Scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh are studying native and non-native bluebells in the wild to evaluate the actual threats to H. non-scripta.

Uses

Bluebells make an attractive ornamental addition to woodland gardens or sites in semi-shade. They are commonly found in British woodlands which have been in existence since at least 1600 AD, and are therefore considered to be environmental indicators of ancient woodland. A glue obtained from bluebells was traditionally used as a means of sticking flights to arrow shafts and in book-binding. 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.

At the beginning of the 20th century special 'Bluebell Trains' took tourists on excursions to see the spectacular bluebell displays in the deciduous woodlands of the Chiltern Hills in southeast England. Although the special train services no longer run, the bluebells can still be seen in what has since been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

There is yet another link between bluebells, tourism and railways – the flower lends its name to the famous 'Bluebell Railway' in East Sussex, not far from Wakehurst. With its steam locomotives, the railway has the distinction of being the world’s first preserved standard gauge passenger line. It is a popular tourist attraction running through attractive wooded countryside where, at the right time of year, you can see bluebells.

Bluebells and our changing climate

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Image: Peter Gasson)

The thick carpet of nodding, fragrant bluebells stretching away into the distance under the trees in Kew's Conservation Area captures the very essence of English woodland in springtime, alive with the drone of bumblebees, birdsong and the first butterflies, all making the most of the warm sunshine. It seems so timeless a sight that it is difficult to imagine it could be threatened as our climate shifts almost imperceptibly around us.

Kew staff have been recording the first flowering dates of plants in the Gardens each year for over 50 years. This kind of study, called phenology, which links the timing of natural events, such as flowering, with the weather is very valuable in tracking the effects of climate change on plants and animals. The Kew results show that the dates on which the first bluebells open can vary by several weeks from year to year depending on the severity of the preceding winter. However, the average opening dates taken over five yearly periods have advanced by as much as two weeks over the last 30 years, corresponding to the period during which scientists believe that man-made climate change has accelerated. It seems that spring is getting earlier and earlier.

This makes it difficult to predict when the peak time for bluebells will be each year and also signals an important warning for their future. Almost 50% of the world's bluebells occur in the UK and they are superbly adapted to burst into leaf and flower on the woodland floor before other woodland plants have come into leaf to cover the ground, and in advance of the foliage overhead forming a dense canopy. It appears that different plants respond to climate change at different rates and the warming climate enables other plants to make an earlier start as well. Although bluebells are appearing above ground earlier in the year, their emerging leaves are finding an increasingly crowded environment and one that is more heavily shaded by the tree canopy above. It is widely feared that our bluebells are suffering as a result. Phenology has a lot to teach us about the ways in which the natural world is responding as our climate warms, bringing changes which will in the longer term have profound impacts on human life too.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 5.53 g.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Nine.
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: 100 % germination was achieved with a pre-sowing treatment (seed scarified - chipped with scalpel), on a 1% agar medium, at a temperature of 11°C, on a cycle of 12 hours daylight/12 hours darkness.

Bluebells in woodland (Image: Peter Gasson)

Cultivation

Bluebells require plenty of moisture during the winter and spring (when they are in growth), but cool shade in the summer, and soil that is not waterlogged.

In Britain, it is important to plant the true native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and not the Spanish bluebell (H. hispanica), as this is often more vigorous and can take over the garden, out-competing native bluebell populations. It can also hybridise with the native bluebell, and could ultimately destroy the pure species.

The bluebell is really a plant best enjoyed in its natural setting; large populations can be seen at both Kew and Wakehurst.

Bluebells near Queen Charlotte Cottage

Bluebells in the grounds of Queen Charlotte's Cottage

This species at Kew

Bluebells have long grown in the Natural Areas (Conservation Area) at Kew, situated near Queen Charlotte's Cottage, and are indicators of ancient British woodland. Every spring they fill the woods with an ocean of colour, best seen when the sun is low. Bluebells can also be seen in the Loder Valley Nature Reserve and Bethlehem Wood at Wakehurst.

Alcohol-preserved specimens of Hyacinthoides non-scripta are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.

References and credits

Cooper, M.R., Johnson, A.W. & Dauncey, E.A. (2003). Poisonous Plants and Fungi: An Illustrated Guide. The Stationery Office, London.

Grieve, M. (1931). A Modern Herbal: the Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with all their Modern Scientific Uses. Johnathan Cape, London.

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, Volumes 1-4. Macmillan, London.

Kohn, D.D., Hulme, P.E., Hollingsworth, P.M. & Butler, A. (2009). Are native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) at risk from alien congenerics? Evidence from distributions and co-occurrence in Scotland. Biol. Cons. 142: 61-74.

Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: A Portable Dictionary of the Vascular Plants. 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.D. (2002). New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: An Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2008). Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available from: http://data.kew.org/sid/ (accessed 17 January 2011).

Stace, C. (1997). New Flora of the British Isles, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tutin, T.G. et al. (1980). Flora Europaea, Volume 5. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Usher, G. (1974). A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man. Constable, London.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2011). Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Published on the Internet by the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/namedetail.do?name_id=278557 (accessed on 14 February 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Monique Simmonds
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group), Anna Trias-Blasi
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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