|Spot the difference: English bluebell to the left and Spanish on the right|
One of the surprise finds on my daily walk this month are the ribbons of English bluebells threading their way through the remains of the old hedgerows on our estate. They're a joy to behold and I'd say we're currently at peak bluebell in this corner of the world.
Their presence has spurred me on to grub out the remaining Spanish bluebells I accidentally planted a few years ago. The packet was labelled as English, but as you can see from the above picture on the right they're clearly not.
My friend Helen posted on her Facebook page a few days ago urging her friends to take out any Spanish bluebells they find. Most people agreed, but someone said "Why? They're pretty!"
She has a point, though I'd say the delicacy of the English ones makes them much more beautiful, especially when viewed en masse in an ancient wood. Their heavenly scent and resemblance to a lake amongst the trees makes them one of the best sights of spring.
The gummy sap from English bluebells was used to fletch arrows in the bronze age and later to bind the pages of books together. Starch extracted from the bulb was used to stiffen collars and cuffs in Elizabethan times. Its potential for medicinal use is being investigated, particularly for the treatment of HIV and cancer.
Both bluebells are great for insects, particularly bees and it's this which is proving to be the downfall of the English bluebell as the two species can freely hybridise. Bees can roam for a mile or more in search of nectar, so there is the potential for quite separate populations of the two types to hybridise.
The hybrid is even more vigorous than its Spanish parent and a survey conducted by Plantlife in 2003 showed one in six broadleaved woodlands contained either the Spanish bluebell or the hybrid. As Britain has half the world's population of English bluebells, this is a cause for concern.
So today's task is to grub out my Spanish bluebells to give English ones at the top of the hill a fighting chance of survival. The accepted advice is to dig deep and remove all the bulbs. I've found stomping all over the leaves can be just as effective, presumably because this prevents the bulbs from replenishing their stores. It's easier and quite satisfying to do.
If you're not sure which bluebells you have in your neck of the woods, the Plantlife link above has a very good pictorial and descriptive guide.