9 Fascinating Facts About Bluebells — England’s Favorite Wild Flower

Dreaming of Spring. The time of year when woodlands all over Britain start to look bloomin’ beautiful, reaching a peak by early May as a dense carpet of blue spreads across the country.

The native bluebell makes a Spring walk through a British woodland a joyful experience—the brilliant color and sweet scent of bluebells, together with the melodic sounds of nesting birds enliven the senses and remind us that summer is just around the corner.

But there’s more to bluebells than just a pretty face. Here are 9 fascinating facts about the British Bluebell.

1. Bluebells are protected by law

In the United Kingdom, the British Bluebell is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is a criminal offence to uproot the wild common bluebell from land on which it naturally grows. Any trade in wild common bluebell bulbs or seeds is also an offence, carrying fines of up to £5000 per bulb.

2. Bluebells are known by many names

Carl von Linné 1707–1778

Known as Common Bluebells, English Bluebells, British Bluebells, wood bells, fairy flowers and wild hyacinth, there’s one name that groups them altogether thanks to a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus.

Known as the “father of modern taxonomy”, in 1753, Linnaeus formalized the binomial nomenclature used to classify organisms.

He named the British Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which basically means an “unmarked” hyacinth—to distinguish it from its classical ancestor of Greek mythology.

In Greek Mythology, Hyacinths were said to spring from the blood of the dying Hyacinthus. The god Apollo shed tears that marked the flower’s petals with the letters “AIAI” (“alas”) as a sign of his grief.

The Death of Hyacinth by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1753
The Death of Hyacinth by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1753

3. Bluebells were voted England’s favorite

In a 2015 Spring poll by botanical charity Plantlife, bluebells were voted the favorite wild flower of England.

Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish voters preferred the pale yellow primrose.

Looks like the fox has picked her favorite.

Image credit: Lee Roberts, flickr (fox); Pokrajac (yellow primrose); MichaelMaggs (bluebell)
Image credit: Lee Roberts, flickr (fox); Pokrajac (yellow primrose); MichaelMaggs (bluebell)

4. Bluebells were important for winning medieval wars

The English Bluebell’s sap is sticky and made an ideal glue for fastening flight feathers to arrows fired by medieval archers.

Battle of Agincourt (1415)
Battle of Agincourt (1415)

5. Emily Brontë wrote a poem about bluebells

In 1838, Emily Brontë, author of the classic Wuthering Heights, wrote a poem dedicated to bluebells.

“The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air:
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.”

Click to read "The Bluebell" poem.

6. Bluebells contain cancer-fighting agents

Bluebells synthesize chemicals that may have medicinal properties. At least 15 biologically active compounds have been identified in bluebells that are thought to give them protection against insects and animals.

Certain water-soluble alkaloids are chemically similar to those used to fight HIV and cancer.

Folk medicine uses the bulbs as various remedies and to help stop bleeding.

Bluebells by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899
Bluebells by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

7. Bluebells reach their greatest densities in the British Isles

Often dominating the forest floor with a violet-blue carpet, affectionately called ‘bluebell woods”, bluebells flower and leaf early in Spring and do most of their growing before the woodland canopy closes over.

They grow well in old, dense woodland because the thick foliage limits the growth of other competing flora.

Bluebells in Buckinghamshire, England. Photo credit Keith Hulbert and Paul Zarucki
Bluebells in Buckinghamshire, England. Photo credit Keith Hulbert and Paul Zarucki

8. Native bluebells have a Spanish cousin

Hyacinthoides hispanica—the Spanish Bluebell—was introduced by Victorians as a garden plant. It now grows in the wild and crossbreeds with the British native bluebell—one of the main reasons the British bluebell is a protected species.

There are three main ways to tell them apart:

  • Native bluebells have a strong, sweet scent, whereas Spanish bluebells have no scent
  • English bluebells are a vivid blue-violet color while the Spanish variety is much paler
  • The strongly recurved tepals (outer parts of the flower) of native bluebells contrasts with the gentle bell shape of the Spanish bluebell.
Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
Common Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

9. Bluebells grow best in ancient woodland

The presence of bluebells helps identify ancient woodland—what Americans call “old-growth forest”—that has existed continuously since the middle ages.

Before about 1600, planting of new woodland was rare, so woodland that was present at that time was likely to have grown naturally.

Since bluebells flourish in natural woodland, they are a very easy way to identify ancient woodlands that could be of special scientific or historical interest.

Path through bluebell wood

Bluebell bulbs have roots that contract and pull the bulbs deeper into soil up to 3-5 inches. Because of this they don’t grow so well on the shallow chalky soils prevalent in the South East of England.

Seven Sisters Cliffs, near Seaford town, East Sussex, England. Photo credit miquitos
Seven Sisters Cliffs, near Seaford town, East Sussex, England. Photo credit miquitos