One of the most beautiful sights of Beacon Hill Wood is the annual show of bluebells from the end of April to the end of May. The British Isles are the only place in the world to have this wonderful display. The name ‘bluebell’ is only used in the southern end of the country, as in the North of England and Scotland it is called the Wild Hyacinth. The ‘bluebell’ for these areas is what we in the South call the harebell. Confusing, isn’t it?

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Well, if you think that’s confusing, the history of the bluebell’s scientific names is more so. At one time it was called Scilla nutans (nodding squill), and later S. non-scripta and Endymion non-scriptus. Endymion was a character in Greek mythology who was loved by the goddess Artemis, and was doomed to never-ending sleep by the jealous god Apollo. Apollo was also responsible for the fate of Hyacinthus in similar fashion, so we apparently have a lot to thank him for in our plants!

The ‘non-scriptus’ refers to the lack of the true hyacinth’s marking said to resemble the Greek word ‘AI’ (alas) and means ‘not written’. The most recent name now usually accepted is Hyancinthoides non-scripta, but given the propensity for name-changing amongst botanists, this may well change in the future. Watch this space.

The true native bluebell can be distinguished from the garden hybrid (H.x variabilis) by the one-sided appearance of the flower-spike or panicle, whereas the hybrid and the very much rarer true Spanish bluebell (H. hispanica), which is the other half of the hybrid’s parentage, both have a more balanced panicle. Another distinction is that the native has cream anthers, the others blue. If you really want to look for details, the native’s bell-shaped perianth segments are parallel, the others diverge or appear to split from the base. So now you know!

Many text books refer to the garden bluebell as the Spanish, but according to a recent analysis by Plantlife, the national (woodland) ratio is about 15 to 1 in favour of the hybrid, and to the Atlas Flora of Somerset (Green, Green & Crouch 1997) the Spanish is only found in 12 2km map squares (tetrads) out of 977 (the hybrid 381) so is quite rare.

As far as I know, the bluebells of Beacon Hill Wood are all true natives, but given the possibility of well-meaning members of the public adding to them by introducing hybrids, we should all keep an eye on things to ensure the purity of our beautiful flowers. Incidentally, the white flowers found particularly along the southern edge of the main bluebell area are natural variations, and no cause for alarm.

Paul Newman, March 2005