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Bluebells: native flower under threat from larger, invasive species

Hybrid or Spanish varieties can quickly displace the native species

Broadleaf woods, waysides and clifftops where trees once grew are now carpeted with the spring favourite, the bluebell. From Sligo to Rathangan, Kilkenny to Killarney, Roscommon to Wexford, the best places to see wild bluebells are listed on travel and family activity guides. But not all bluebells are native.

Some will be the garden or large Spanish variety introduced by horticulture. More will be hybrids. The smaller, more fairy-like native species with its little hoods and flowers all to one side, its nodding gait and delicate hyacinth scent, is under threat globally. And this makes the Irish and British populations, which between them hold up to half the world’s wild bluebells, particularly important.

Already there are some parts of Northern Ireland and Britain where Hyacinthoides non-scripta, to give its botanical name, or the Coinnle corra (tapered candles) in Irish has retreated in face of the Spanish invasion.

The beech wood alongside the main N71 Ring of Kerry is an annual showcase for the bluebell with tour buses often slowing to catch a longer glimpse. But even here clumps of tall Spanish bluebells have recently appeared among the native flowers. Their presence was confirmed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for the first time last year.


Beech trees and bluebells go hand in hand as the beech litter takes longer to decompose, and the flowers on the forest floor can snatch enough light before the leaves come on fully.

How Hyacinthoides hispanica arrived is not known but it is in a number of the park woodlands. Invasive species are something the NPWS is keenly aware of in Killarney and this newcomer was spotted early. Unlike like the threat from rhododendron, a programme of eradication is not necessary, the NPWS says. Instead “staff members are actively seeking them out”, a spokesman said.

Dr Therese Higgins, botanist and lecturer in the school of science in MTU Tralee, welcomes these efforts. She is the author of a guide on managing invasive species and is keen to create more awareness of the native species and how vulnerable it is.

The robust hybrid species spreads more easily and the fear is that it can quickly displace the native species. Maintaining the integrity of habitats, conserving them in a “healthy” state with the full complement of native plants that have evolved there, is a worthwhile conservation goal, Higgins says.

Native seeds

The homogenisation of ecosystems through the human-movement of plants and animals around the world has long been considered a kind of erosion of biodiversity – the idea that habitat types are less unique as they become more similar, Higgins says.

Gardeners and those involved in community planting projects should avoid planting bluebells other than the native species, where possible, she says.

It can be difficult to source native bulbs, with many horticultural outlets providing mislabelled bulbs so when you think you are buying native they can grow into non-native. Responsibly collecting seeds is probably the best approach, she says.

The tiny black seeds (same size as mustard seeds) are produced in papery seed heads from mid-May onwards, as the flowering ends.

The best way to introduce native bluebells to the garden is to collect fresh seed (the seeds dry out in a matter of a few weeks, becoming non-viable) from waysides and woods outside the national park. Then disperse them into the flower bed or wild flower meadow. They will germinate to look like grass initially, but will put on true leaves after one year.

“Only collect a small fraction of the seed produced at any location, and do not collect from national parks, reserves etc, where the plants should not be disturbed,” she says.


Traditionally, fairy lore protected the wild bluebell from trampling or interference. The ancient belief was that you risked calling up the fairy folk if the flower bells were disturbed.

“It was thought to be unlucky to walk through them as the plants were full of spells,” Kieran Flood narrates in Three Shades of Blue, a short video by Irish Wildlife Trust.

There has been an increase in trampling in recent years, not least by people wishing to be photographed or to snap their children among the flowers. Trampling of the leaves by feet and increasingly by woodland bikers deprives the plants of their food source and is discouraged as the plants will quickly die off.

Biodiversity Ireland also seeks to map invasive species and is inviting those sure of their facts to report sightings of the varieties.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre has a species profile for the native species.

The NPWS said the bluebells in the wood alongside the N71 at Muckross Killarney are “enjoyed by all”.

“In spite of this wonderful spectacle, we would also advise that the non-native Spanish bluebell is now found in this wood so to issue a word of caution that some bluebell pulling by NPWS staff might be observed this year.”

So if you go down to the woods this year...