Gardening: Beating the blues

PRETTY IN PINK: But the traditional bluebell is something very different.
PRETTY IN PINK: But the traditional bluebell is something very different.
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The traditional woodland delight has been fighting off a foreign invader. David Overend reports.

You can tell what time of year it is just by looking at what’s growing outdoors – particularly wild plants.

May provides the perfect example – the bluebell, or, in some cases, the pinkbell and even the whitebell, although purists will tell you that both are hybrid results of a foreign invasion.

A few years ago, bluebells were making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The native English plant was under threat from the Spanish. Big names in the world of horticulture sprang to the defence of the beleaguered variety, fearing that it was going to be forced out by the more vigorous foreign upstart.

But how – apart from those pink and white forms – can anyone tell the difference?

Simple – the blooms of the English bluebell have parallel or straight sides, whereas the Iberian form has flowers that are more open with cone-shaped bells. And they aren’t scented, whereas if you get up close and personal to a native bluebell, you should be able to detect a pleasant fragrance.

So there – British are best, and English bluebells (Hyacinthoides) are the flowers of May and deciduous woodlands, where they bloom before the canopy of leaves shuts out the light from the forest floor.

They grow and spread with amazing speed, and they have become a familiar and much-loved sight in late April and early May. The Spanish bluebell (Endymion) can tolerate more light than its English counterpart – hence, its spread is greater.

If you have planted bluebells (be they English or Spanish) in your garden, you will have a devil of a job removing them. No matter how deep you dig to evict them, there will always be one or two bulbs left to re-start the colony.

The recurring fear is that anyone who does want to plant bluebells may plant the Spanish instead of the English. But if you buy from a reputable source, and check the Latin name of what you’re purchasing, there is no chance of mistaking one for the other.

Alternatively, plant squills (Scilla). Delicate, but diverse, these bulbs range from miniatures which will do the rockery proud in February.

S sibirica reaches six inches in height and produces violet blooms between March and April, but there are also white and pink forms.

Overcrowded clumps should be lifted and divided in early September and replanted immediately.

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