Gardening: Bluebells and beyond

26 April 2019

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IT SEEMS no time since the edge of our woods was carpeted in snowdrops, and now the same areas have taken on a cobalt hue. Bluebell time is here!

If your main experience of this bulbous perennial is in gardens, you are probably more familiar with the Spanish species, Hyacinthoides hispanica, than our more delicate British native, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It is a taller, stockier plant with paler large flared “bells” hanging on all sides of the flower stem, while the daintier and more intensely pigmented English “bells” are more cylindrical, and hang to one side.

Spanish bluebells have blue pollen coating their stamens rather than the English creamy white, and generally have no scent. The two interbreed readily; so the purity of our native bluebell gene pool is under threat. Many plants growing near settlements show characteristics midway between the two species.

Even those of us who are gardening a long way from any ancient woodland are well advised to choose and seek out our native bluebell from a reputed supplier.

You may still be able to find plants sold “in the green” now. Otherwise, wait until the autumn to plant bulbs. They work well in semi-shade, under deciduous trees and shrubs, say, and in looser informal areas. If you already have a patch of the Spanish cousin that you want to keep in check, prevent seeding by pulling out the faded flower-spikes near their base.

If you have ever cut bluebells to put in a vase, you will have encountered the mucilage, which is typical of the subfamily Scilloideae to which they belong. There are other slime-infused but nevertheless garden-worthy plants in Scilloideae. Scilla hyacinthoides is the common bluebell’s exotic cousin from the Mediterranean, and needs a summer baking. Plant the large bulbs in autumn in your sunniest flowerbed, and the following May or June you will be rewarded with 50cm-tall spikes of starry violet blooms.

Galtonia candicans is another beautiful relative, this time from South Africa, and the bulbs can be planted now. It goes by the common name of summer hyacinth, but, at around a metre, it is taller, and is more graceful than the plants we force at Christmas. It needs careful placing to hide the floppy fleshy leaves after a late summer flowering.

Finally, there are pineapple lilies, also from South Africa, and, again, it is not too late to start these large bulbs into growth now. Eucomis bicolor look great in containers to show off their bold “pineapples” of star flowers.

Plant three bulbs in a 30cm-diameter pot in a gritty loam-based compost. If you bring the whole pot into a frost-free shed or garage, in the autumn, the bulbs will steadily increase and can be potted on, each spring, into progressively larger tubs. They will give quite a show in late summer to round off the season that begins now with the bluebells.

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