In season in May: Bluebells

The stuff of myth and legend, these glorious flowers are true hallmarks of spring.

Ephemeral, startling and memorable, our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, growing en masse, never fails to entrance. ‘We all find a haze of bluebells beneath beeches more magical than anything we can create,’ wrote Beth Chatto.

Bluebells

Image credit: Mark Bolton

To Elizabethan Britons, bluebells were enchanted, and heaven forbid you hear their bell-shaped heads ring, for death would likely follow. Links with folklore were still prevalent more than three centuries later, as borne out by Cicely Mary Barker’s depictions of Flower Fairies (the first book in the series was published in 1923) and her assertion that the bluebell be ‘the peerless Woodland King’.

Deep blue H. non-scripta, a perennial bulb, flourishes in the humus-rich soils of the Chilterns and Northamptonshire, and on limestone ridges. Young shoots push their way up through leaf litter to allow their flowers to open in the dappled shade of trees such as beech and oak. The bluebell is a natural indicator that helps us to identify ancient woodlands, where it has grown for hundreds of years. Rich in pollen and nectar, it is also a vital food source for many native insects, including its main pollinator, the bumblebee.

Bluebells

Image credit: Mark Bolton

How to create a bluebell carpet

– Make sure you buy seeds or bulbs from a reputable source to ensure that you only plant the native Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Check with your supplier that bulbs have been grown in Britain, from cultivated stock.

– Bluebells like dappled shade around the base of trees, and a light humus-rich soil rather than heavy clay.

– Think carefully before planting: although bluebells are not easy to establish, once they get going, they can be tricky to control.

– Bluebells are best planted where they will not be disturbed, in large areas of rough grass or open woodland.

– You can plant bulbs either in the autumn or in the green (immediately after flowering in late spring).

– If buying bulbs in the green in spring, plant them when they are received. If your ground is still frozen, then plant them temporarily in damp compost in a sheltered place and transplant as soon as possible.

– You can also buy fresh seed which is harvested in July and August and sent out between September and November.

– Propagating by seed is slower (it will take up to six years before you have a fully flowering bulb) but is cheaper and easier if you want to plant up a large area (roughly £4 for 120 seeds, as opposed to about £3.40 for 10 bulbs in the green). Sow seeds thickly in the wild so that sufficient numbers survive the depredations of small animals.

– You will need 2gms per square metre if you are sowing in a prepared seed bed or up to 20gms if the seeds are to be sown in the wild.

– For blanket coverage, you will need roughly 150 bulbs per square metre, although fewer if you are planting them in drifts, according to Kathy Kalafat of Wildflower Shop.

– Good companion plants for native bluebells are red campion (Silene dioica) and greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea).

– If you have Spanish bluebells in your garden, you should consider removing them in case they spread to nearby woodlands of native bluebells. Dig up the rogue plants after flowering with their leaves intact. Leave them to dry out for up to a month to ensure they are completely dead before disposing of them with care.

Bluebells

Image credit: Mark Bolton

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