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BLUEBELLS IN CUMBRIA

Britain is supposed to hold something like one third of all the bluebells in the world. Their preference for a mild Atlantic sea-board climate means that Cumbria is the perfect county for this species and it is found in around 65% of all the tetrads in the county i.e. virtually all outside the upland areas. The native species has been at risk as its woodland habitat falls victim to climate changes, changes in coppicing practice, agricultural demands and coniferous planting after the First World War. Now, a serious further risk is posed from hybridisation with introduced Spanish Bluebells.

Famous spots in the Lake District are at Rannerdale and Low Wood by Wast Water, but South Cumbria in particular has some spectacular displays of Bluebell carpets, usually at their best around the second/third week of May. The Rusland Valley in particular has excellent displays that can be seen from the roadside. Here the plant grows in its true habitat of ancient woodland, flowering well where enough light penetrates the tree canopy in the early spring. It can also flower spectacularly in open ground, but this usually indicates a site of former woodland, as at nearby Hay Bridge.

In the 17th century Spanish Bluebells were introduced into British gardens and these have hybridised with our native species to such an extent that around one third of all Bluebells in Britain are hybrids, especially around towns. Spanish Bluebells are frequently found in churchyards, parks and gardens. Because of its rural nature Cumbria has not yet suffered heavily from this hybridisation - examples of hybrids are however commonly found near gardens, on roadsides and on waste ground, especially in the Furness Peninsula, around the Solway Plain and between Keswick and Penrith.

The native species (left) has flowers:

  • that hang down to one side
  • that are deep blue-violet (although sometimes pale, very rarely pink or white)
  • with straight-sided bells and rolled-back tips
  • with creamy-white anthers
  • that are scented especially in warm weather.

The Spanish species (centre) has flowers:

  • that are held in more dense flower spikes
  • that are held stiffly, more horizontal and all round the stem
  • that are pale to mid-blue, sometimes stripey in appearance (white and pink are also common)
  • with flared open bells having almost straight tips
  • with pale to dark blue anthers
  • with no scent.

Hybrids (right and below) can have characteristics of either, often with fewer but larger, brighter bells held outwards but with white anthers. The image below might look amusing and patriotic in its three colour varieties, but it shows the Spanish influence and these have no place in the Cumbrian countryside and should be dug up.

True white native bluebells are rare - one in a million. Of several hundred thousand in flower in Sea Wood, Bardsea, I could only find one (almost) white one. Note the straight-sided bells hanging on one side only.