Tag Archives: English bluebells

Bluebells in a New Zealand springtime

There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland and that was more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.

Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees fairly widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”. On top of that, the time at which the bluebells are in growth, coincides with the spring flush of grass so mowing becomes problematic. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.

We solved this problem by planting bluebells in our wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give us expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.

It took UK writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me. The English Hyacinthoides  non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. The Spanish H. hispanica is much stronger growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent.

But to add to the mix, there are the natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and the hybrids fall somewhat in the middle with characteristics from both parents.  I had previously tried to unravel the species and headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused. Of course I did. I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – and the majority of bluebells growing in UK gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids, then it seems likely that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.

I stopped down the road to examine some bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesized, that seemed a likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.  I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.

A word about white or pink bluebells. While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of H. non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant. Bluebells, by definition, should be mostly blue. A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed, really. That is my opinion.

First published in the September issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

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Peak bluebell!

Flynn the dog did not show a great deal of respect for the Te Popo bluebells, alas

Flynn the dog did not show a great deal of respect for the Te Popo bluebells, alas

The first time I visited Scotland was at exactly the right time to see the bluebells bloom. This was in woodland near Gatehouse of Fleet in the south west. Like many others, I was enchanted by this natural phenomenon.

It is Peak Bluebell here this week. We headed down to see the blue glory at Te Popo Gardens in central Taranaki. While we grow bluebells in relatively large numbers ourselves, we have yet to attain the magnificent expanse they manage in their conditions.

At Te Popo, there are many deciduous trees which creates a woodland cycle. When the leaves fall, they are left to lie. The bare trees let in winter light. It is at the turning of the season when the fresh growth is just starting on the trees that the bluebells flower, creating great swathes of blue carpet beneath. As the trees take on their full summer leafy garb, light conditions will decrease below which suppresses competing weed and grass growth.

Bluebells beneath deciduous trees at Te Popo

Bluebells beneath deciduous trees at Te Popo

In our garden at Tikorangi, our tree cover is such a mix of evergreen and deciduous that our woodland areas tend to be a little dark for most bulbs. When it gets too dark, the bulbs don’t set flower buds and gradually die out. We have to go for the margins and find the balance between necessary light levels and the grass growth that comes as a result. We are less blue carpet and more drifting carpet runner, if you see what I mean.

Bluebells are strong growing bulbs, also given to seeding down, so are better suited to a more natural style of gardening rather than intensively maintained borders. Lorri Ellis at Te Popo uses them extensively with hellebores to good effect. We have both found that spreading them in areas which can then be more or less left to their own devices is most effective. It is the massed, natural look that works.

Bottom left, clockwise: Spanish bluebells in blue, white and pink, allegedly English bluebells, blue lachenalias and grape hyacinths – muscari – which some people mistakenly refer to as bluebells.

Bottom left, clockwise: Spanish bluebells in blue, white and pink, allegedly English bluebells, blue lachenalias and grape hyacinths – muscari – which some people mistakenly refer to as bluebells

There is ongoing angst in Britain over the incursions of the stronger growing Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, dominating and hybridising with their native bluebell H. non scripta. We spent some time discussing the difference. Lorri has a large patch that she understands is the true English bluebell and she has kept it isolated from the rest which are probably mostly Spanish, or Spanglish as I call the hybrids between the two – technically H. x massartiana.

Bluebells and very fragrant jonquil species are both originally from Spain.

Bluebells and very fragrant jonquil species are both originally from Spain.

One way you can tell what you have, apparently, is by pollen colour. The English ones always have creamy pollen whereas the Spanish ones often have blue pollen. I had noticed the latter. After some random sampling and Mark’s memories of what he refers to as “Grandma’s bluebells” (technically his great grandmother, I think), we came to the conclusion that it is likely that most of what we have here are hybrids. We are none the wiser as to whether Grandma started with English or Spanish ones, but we think that the lilac pink and white ones that were brought in to add variety are all of Spanish origin.
Mostly Te Popo 014 - Copy
Te Popo Gardens are located near Stratford and will be open during the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular from October 31 to November 9

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.