Story of the blues - The Heart of England Forest

Native bluebells at Alne Wood*


Few sights evoke the spirit of spring more than a carpet of bluebells spreading throughout the understory of the woodland, but the nation’s favourite wildflower faces an uncertain future thanks to a Spanish interloper and climate changes. Here at the Heart of England Forest we are passionate about helping this delicate flower to survive and thrive; and ensuring that visitors continue to enjoy its unrivalled beauty.

Fighting for survival

Recent research has analysed records of the changing seasons to help predict the impacts of changing climate patterns on 22 species of plants, including bluebells, and trees found in the British countryside. Spring plants have an optimum time for coming into leaf and flower, giving them the best chance to grow and reproduce, but with climate change causing temperatures to change, that time is likely to shift. There is concern that plants such as bluebells may not be flexible enough to keep up with this shift in spring and may suffer as a result.

In addition, the more recent proliferation of a Spanish version of this iconic woodland spring flower merely adds to the threat. More than a quarter of the world’s population of bluebells is found in the UK, but the native species is losing ground to the Spanish bluebell which was introduced by the Victorians as a garden plant before making it ‘over the garden wall’ and into the wild. As a result, the two species are now inter-breeding and producing hybrid plants that could eventually lead to the extinction of the native UK bluebell.

The vast majority of bluebells are found among broadleaved woodland or scrub, so, as these habitats are lost in other parts of the UK, areas like the Heart of England Forest are essential to the survival of the species. Bluebells spend much of the year as bulbs underground in woodlands, emerging to flower and leaf from April onwards. In the past, it became popular to uproot the bulbs for use in gardens, but now they are protected by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, the result being that anyone found digging them up could face a fine!

Spot the difference

Identifying the native bluebell from the Spanish imposter is relatively simple. The British plant has a more vivid blue colour and is notable for its characteristic bending stem and drooping leaf fronds. It also gives off a more fragrant scent and has white-creamy anthers inside. Spanish bluebells stand upright, are much paler in colour and usually have blue anthers inside.
Very rarely, bluebells can also be white. These flowers lack the pigment that gives bluebells their distinct colour. All bluebell plants are poisonous and the chemical that makes them so was historically used in alchemy, while modern scientists are researching it for possible medical uses.

Our native bluebell*


See for yourself

It’s no coincidence that in folklore bluebells were known as ‘fairy flowers’, and it was believed fairies used them to trap passers-by, particularly small children. Visitors to the Heart of England Forest in spring run no such risk, and the chance to gaze upon the enchanting sight of a mass of these delightful flowers is one no-one should miss. The best way to see them in all their glory is to sign up for our Bluebell Wood Fundraising Open Day at Alne Wood on Saturday, April 28th (11am-4pm). Check out our events page for more details and to get your hands on the limited number of early bird tickets.


* photo copyright Shaun Coward

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