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Onion-smelling Spanish conquistadors lay waste to British woodlands

400 hundred years after the Spanish Armada came unstuck an invasion appears to have succeeded by other means. PETER FROST points the finger at the bluebells

The few days of bright sunshine recently have flushed out the vast blue fragrant carpet of bluebells in the woods near my home.

Among the delights of the spring are the arrival of the swallows, hearing the first cuckoo and walking your favourite bluebell wood to enjoy the almost unbelievable beauty of the low-lying misty cloud of delicate nodding pale blue flowers.

The sight and the delicate fragrance can both lift the spirit almost as much as David Cameron and Nick Clegg losing an election.

Back in the 1980s there would have been no doubt what those delicate blue flowers were — they would all have been British native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

Today you can’t be so sure. Today the bluebells in our woods are just as likely to be the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) or, even more confusingly, a fertile hybrid between the British species and its Spanish cousin.

Like many invasive species the Spanish bluebell is more vigorous and aggressive than our native flora and is advancing through our woodland and destroying or overwhelming our original native flowers.

Concerned botanists are predicting that our native bluebell species could be extinct in as little as 50 years.

The Spanish bluebells — which smell like onions — were first introduced to our gardens as long ago as 1683. They were grown as rare and exotic specimens but escapes and careless gardeners dumping waste containing dormant bulbs have led to huge populations in wild woodlands.

They now outnumber our more fragrant native bluebells.

The Spanish plants have been described as thuggish by horticulturists. It is much more vigorous than our native species and can crossbreed with the native to create a fertile hybrid. 

This is a problem as crossbreeding dilutes the unique characteristics of one of our best loved seasonal native woodland flowers.

Once that gene pool is gone it will be gone forever. 

The environmental wild plant pressure group Plantlife works hard planting wildflower meadows and encouraging native woodland species. They told us: “People say we should not make a fuss about these invasive bluebells. But in 50 or 100 years’ time we’ll find we have got none of our native flowers left.”

In a recent study, conducted by Plantlife volunteers across Britain, one in six broadleaved woodlands surveyed were found to contain the hybrid or Spanish bluebell.

Huge garden centre chains — more concerned with profit than the environment — are selling the Spanish bulbs in large numbers often without explaining the difference or giving any warnings as to what these imported exotics can do to our native flora.

Unscrupulous bulb suppliers and seed suppliers are selling the imported bulbs labelled simply as bluebells, not even hinting that they may be anything but our much-loved and familiar native species.

Plantlife and others have lobbied to make it an offence to allow Spanish bluebells to spread into the wild — but the government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England have refused to consider legislation. 
Clearly something needs to be done. If it isn’t we may be the last generation to welcome spring with the magical sight and smell of our native bluebell carpeting the woods.

Know thy enemy

Native common bluebells (pictured, sometimes known as English or Welsh bluebells) have a distinct, sweetish scent.

The flowers are smaller and more delicate than their Spanish cousins and they have narrow leaves. They are deep blue (sometimes white, rarely pink), narrow, tube-like flowers with the very tips curled right back.

The flowers are mostly on one side of the stem only and distinctly drooping.

Inside the flowers, the anthers and pollen are usually cream.

Spanish bluebells are paler blue and sometimes even white or pink.

They have a scent that resembles onions and have broader leaves, often 3cm (more than an inch).

The conical or bell-shaped flowers have spread-out tips and bloom all round the upright stem.

Inside anthers and pollen are usually, but not always, blue.

Many of the cross species hybrids exhibit colour and growth habit somewhere between the two parent species making identification a job for experts.


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