Growing Bluebells: How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Hyacinthoides Non-scripta
Are you looking to plant English bluebells in your garden? These European natives are some of the easiest bulbs to grow – a prime example of a ‘plant it and forget it’ flower. Gardening expert Madison Moulton discusses everything you need to grow a few bluebells, or your own woodland field of flowers, right in your backyard.
If you’re looking to recreate the calming, natural woodland feel in your own garden, you can’t go wrong planting bluebells. These stunning blue bulbs transform European forest floors into seas of blue throughout spring and will make just as much of an impact in pots or your flower beds.
Botanically named Hyacinthoides non-scripta, this bulb is usually known as the English bluebell, common bluebell, or wild hyacinth. These woodland plants are not to be confused with Hyacinthoides hispanica or Spanish bluebells, a different species of Hyacinthoides.
Their ease of growth and tolerance of shade makes them ideal plants for many gardeners, especially beginners. Choose one, mix them with other popular bulbs, or plant an entire field – the options are endless.
Bluebell Plant Overview
Spring Flowering Bulbs, Hostas
Don’t Plant With
Although known today as Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebells have had many different names in the past.
These bulbs, native to western Europe, were dubbed Hyacinthus non-scriptus by the founder of binomial scientific naming, Carl Linnaeus. This genus is commonly known as hyacinths – an incredibly popular garden bulb.
50 years later, two German scientists changed the genus to Scilla, another bulb genus found across woodlands in Europe. Unfortunately, the scientific uncertainty didn’t stop there. Another 50 years later, a different German scientist transferred the plant to the Endymion genus. That’s why you may still find this plant under the names Endymion non-scriptus or Scilla non-scripta today.
In 1934, French botanist Pierre Chouard changed the label to Hyacinthoides – literally meaning ‘like a hyacinth’ – where it remains today.
Most wild bluebells are found across the United Kingdom and hold a rich history in this area. Several folklore stories have been passed down for generations, such as the belief that bluebell woodlands are inhabited by fairies. This also gave them the nickname fairy flowers.
These folklore fairies are not known to play nice. According to legends, bluebells ring to call the fairies. If a human hears this bell, they will be visited by fairies and face an untimely death. Similarly, children with a desire to pick bluebells are warned that if they do, they will likely disappear, never to be seen again.
Apart from these dark and twisted warnings, bluebells are beloved across the UK and in Europe – somewhat of an unofficial national flower. Walking through bluebell fields is a wonderful pastime. But, beware not to disturb the fairies, or face the consequences.
While used as garden plants often, most bluebells are found in the wild. More than half of these wild bluebells can be found in woodlands around England. While their origin story is somewhat unclear, people believe these bluebell woodlands started springing up following the end of the last ice age.
Due to their age – some are known to be hundreds of years old – these spaces are usually protected to prevent their decline. In some areas, these bulbs are considered endangered in their natural habitats. As a result, it is illegal to remove bluebell bulbs from the wild and plant them in your own garden or sell them off, according to the Wildlife and Countryside Act of the United Kingdom.
While part of the same genus, English bluebells and Spanish bluebells are not the same plant. This distinction is important, as Spanish bluebells tend to be more invasive in some regions than their English counterparts.
Both plants look quite similar but can be easily distinguished in spring by their flower type. English bluebell flowers are darker and curl over whereas Spanish bluebell flowers are lighter and remain upright. English bluebells are also slightly shorter than Spanish ones.
It’s important to keep these two plants away from each other, or they will hybridize to form Hyacinthoides × massartiana.
There are two ways to propagate bluebells: by sowing seeds or dividing bulbs. Propagating from seeds is the simplest method and provides the most natural look in the garden. Dividing is slightly more technical but produces quicker results.
Propagating From Seed
Bluebell seeds will be ready around mid to late summer. In the wild, these seeds spread via the wind to create the fields of flowers we see today. If you’re looking to replicate that style, leaving them to propagate on their own is the easiest way to achieve carpets of blue.
However, if you’d like to plant your bluebell seeds in another part of the garden, you can simply collect the seeds when they are ready and replant them. Replicate natural propagation by sprinkling the seeds over well-composted soil and keeping the area cool until germination. If planting in pots, you can also start the seeds in trays.
The seeds will take a few months to germinate, and will only flower in about two to five years. You also run the risk of growing a plant that is not a pure English bluebell if any hybridization has taken place. The only way to ensure an exact replica of your current plant is to divide the bulbs or to grow from seeds purchased from a nursery.
Seeds can also be started in trays indoors but will require a bit more care and attention. Sow several seeds into trays filled with a soilless seedling mix. You can purchase from your local nursery or make your own using coconut coir and perlite.
Cover with a plastic bag and keep the soil moist for about a month before moving the tray into the fridge for around six weeks. This will replicate the natural germination conditions, triggering growth in the plant.
After six weeks, bring the tray back out and continue to grow indoors until the seeds have germinated. This process usually takes several months, but can take longer than a year before the seedlings are ready to be transplanted.
Propagating by Division
If your plant is already established and you’re looking for faster results from propagation, bulb division is your answer. This also ensures you get an exact copy of the existing plant rather than a hybrid as when planting from seed.
Take a look at your bed for signs of bulb offsets shooting up above the ground. When you begin to see the bulb above ground rather than below it, you can begin the process of dividing. This is best done in late summer when the leaves of the plant have died back.
Dig up the entire plant gently by loosening the soil around it with a fork. Dig carefully to avoid damaging the bulb you are pulling up, or any surrounding bulbs.
Once the plant is out of the ground, shake off the soil. The offsets should be clearly visible. Simply remove these from the main bulb with your hands to prepare for planting.
Loosen the soil of the planting site and clear the area of any debris. If planting in poor-quality soil, amend it with plenty of compost before starting. Replant the offsets immediately after removing them to stop them from drying out.
Bluebells are best planted in fall to prepare for flowering in spring. You can purchase bulbs from your local nursery or potted plants to transplant into your garden. You can also purchase seeds to sow straight into the ground or in trays, but these plants will take several years to grow before flowering.
Bulbs should be planted with the root side down. If planted the wrong way around, they will not grow. Push the bulbs into the soil a few inches down and cover with soil.
Container bluebells can simply be transplanted into the ground at the same depth as the container they came in. Ensure the soil at the bottom of the planting hole is loose and airy to encourage the deep rot system to grow downwards.
For a neater look, you can space them around five inches apart. This gives them plenty of space to grow and allows you to plant with a more formal design in mind.
However, if you’re after the woodland feel, grouped planting appears far more natural. This can be achieved by grouping the bulbs together in clumps at planting time. Alternatively, you can use my favorite method – chance. Grab all the bulbs into one hand and throw them in the air around the garden bed. Wherever the bulbs land is wherever you plant them.
For gardeners not in a hurry, planting seeds is the easiest way to ensure your bluebell bed looks natural. Simply sprinkle your seeds on top of the soil and keep well-watered until germination. Leave flowering plants to set seed and spread around the bed for even more plants in later years.
How to Grow
In order to successfully grow bluebells in your garden, you’ll need the right combination of light, water, soil, climate, and fertilization. Let’s take a look at each of these important factors so you understand how to maximize the growth of your flowers this season.
To best replicate their natural conditions, plant bluebells in spots with dappled shade. They are great for planting under trees that aren’t too dense, as their habitat indicates. Areas that receive some morning sun with afternoon shade are also suitable.
While dappled light is ideal, it’s not every gardener’s reality. Luckily, these bulbs can tolerate a range of lighting conditions. They are known to grow in open fields where they remain in full sun positions for a large part of the day. They can also tolerate full shade, although areas with at least some light throughout the day are better than deep shade areas.
When planting in containers, you also have the luxury of moving the plant to different lighting conditions depending on performance.
Essentially, you can plant this bulb in almost any kind of light and it will grow happily.
Bluebells are not particularly thirsty plants. They do need moist soil for optimal growth, but too much moisture can cause the bulb to rot.
Once planted, water thoroughly and deeply to encourage root growth. When the first new growth begins to emerge in spring, you can lessen your watering. Water the soil as soon as the top layer (two to three inches) is dry.
To help retain moisture in the soil, apply a thin layer of mulch over the top. This also replicates woodland conditions as leaves typically fall around the bulbs and create a layer of organic matter that traps moisture in the soil.
The root system travels quite deep into the soil over time. This allows the roots to reach water deep in the soil that does not evaporate as quickly due to sun exposure. Once your bluebells are fully established in the garden (after a few seasons of growth), they will therefore require less watering.
Like most bulbs, bluebells should be planted in nutrient-rich, well-draining soil. Drainage is one of the most important factors, as inadequate drainage will rot the bulb and kill the plant. That means heavy clays soils are out of the question, unless you amend them with compost.
Besides drainage, bluebells are not particularly fussy about their soil conditions. They can survive in sandy soil or moderately fertile soil for long periods of time.
The ideal pH is slightly acidic, but they can also handle slightly alkaline soils quite well. Aim for a pH between 5.5 and 7.5 and you’ll be good to go.
Climate and Temperature
English bluebells are quite hardy and don’t mind the cold, surviving in temperatures as low as -20F for short periods of time. Once the weather cools, the foliage dies back as the plant prepares to emerge from the soil again the following spring.
They perform their best in USDA Zones 5-8, but will still grow in Zones 4 or 9 at a push. When planted in the dappled shade they prefer, excessive heat isn’t too much of an issue, provided they get enough water to keep the soil moist.
Once growth begins, you can apply a specialized flower fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium and lower in nitrogen. This will ensure you get the most blooms possible during the flowering season.
However, if you’ve planted in nutrient-rich soil, fertilizer is not a necessity. Soil amended with compost or other organic matter, even when applied as a mulch during the season, will give the plants all the nutrients they need to thrive.
Care & Maintenance
If you want to stop your bluebells from spreading or keep the plant looking neat, flowers can be deadheaded regularly before they set seed. If you want to propagate from seed, only deadhead flowers in the first weeks of blooming, leaving the last flowers on the plant.
As the foliage begins to die back after flowering, you may be tempted to prune the leaves. However, the nutrients from these leaves will return to the bulb stored underground to save for flowering next season. Keep them on the plant until they fall off naturally, after which they can be removed and composted.
The Hyacinthoides genus covers all bluebells, the most common of which are the English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta referred to here.
Their Spanish cousins Hyacinthoides hispanica are larger, with flowers that have no scent. Spanish bluebells are known to spread far more vigorously than their English counterparts. Left unchecked, they can take over a landscape and become naturalized in your garden.
This is even more of an issue when Spanish and English bluebells are planted in the same area. These two plants hybridize to form Hyacinthoides x massartiana, a plant with characteristics from both bluebell types. This hybridization is one of the reasons bluebells are considered endangered in the United Kingdom.
Ultimately, if you don’t want to spread them to other parts of your garden or your local environment, it’s best to stick to English bluebells.
You may also have heard of the Virginia bluebell, native to North America. While it may share a common name, the Virginia bluebell is a completely different plant, known as Mertensia virginica.
Pests and Diseases
When planting bluebells, pests and diseases are one thing you won’t have to worry about. These plants are naturally resistant to several pests and diseases, including woodland animals like deer and rabbits thanks to their native habitats.
If you’re incredibly unlucky in the garden, you may encounter one disease – bluebell rust. Plants infected with bluebell rust will have yellow spots on the leaves filled with small brown spots. Affected areas can be pruned, or you can apply an organic fungicide per package instructions. However, this disease won’t majorly damage the health of your plants if left alone for a while.
Bluebells can fill a garden in so many ways, it can be hard to decide which one is best for you.
To mimic the stunning fields of blue covering European woodlands, mass planting is perfect for bluebells. The soft blue hues create waves of color throughout spring that look even more impressive when bunched together. This is also the easiest look to replicate over a long period of time – simply allow the flowers to spread their seeds and you should have a blooming blue bed in a couple of years’ time.
If you don’t have the space or patience to wait that long, bluebells can hold their own in a bed too. They provide pops of blue in spring beds – a color difficult to come across in nature. When planted alongside other bulbs that flower at the same time, like tulips, they make an intricate flowering feature.
As bluebells are shorter in stature than other plants, they are great fillers for several areas of the garden. When planted en masse in densely packed groups, they can even act as ground cover, keeping moisture in the soil and weeds out.
If you’re looking to fill a shady spot under a tree where nothing else seems to grow, bluebells may be your answer. Their delicate flowers stand out amongst other partial shade plants like hostas. The deep greens of these foliage plants only serve to highlight the main event, the blue bluebell blooms.
Those short on space, or without any backyard at all, can always plant in containers. Bluebells are great for growing in pots, as long as they are deep enough to accommodate the deep root system. Plant in a well-draining potting mix, keep well-watered, and you’ll be treated to bluebell blooms come springtime.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are bluebells toxic to pets?
Bluebells are toxic to pets and humans. All parts of the plant contain glycosides that are toxic when ingested, particularly to dogs, horses and cattle. Keep these plants away from any nearby pets and from children. They can look similar to other edible bulbs, like some types of onion, but should never be ingested.
Can bluebells be white?
Spanish bluebells can be blue, white, or pink, but English bluebells usually remain blue. However, white English bluebells are not unheard of. Occasionally, a rare genetic mutation occurs that causes the blooms to turn white. The likelihood is about 1 in 10 000 though, so if you do happen to find white bluebells, they are more than likely the Spanish variety.
When do bluebells flower?
Bluebells typically flower in mid to late spring, with the last blooms peaking out at the end of May. If you’re not looking to propagate from seed, you can extend the last of the flowering season by cutting the flower stalks and bringing them indoors. They may not last as long as some other cut flowers, but it will allow you to enjoy them for just that little bit longer.
Are bluebells perennials?
Bluebells are bulbous perennials that will continue to flower each year once established.
Will bluebells grow from seed?
Bluebells are excellent flowers to grow from seed, if you have a bit of patience. Seeds develop as the flowering season comes to a close, after which they can be removed from the plant and replanted or stored.
Alternatively, leave your seeds on the plant and let them spread around the bed naturally. But, this process is not for the faint-hearted. It can take several months just for the seeds to germinate, sometimes almost a year. It will then take another few years, usually two to five, for the plants to produce flowers. But once you’ve got a field of blue in your backyard, you’ll know it was well worth the effort.
What’s the difference between English bluebells and Spanish bluebells?
The first difference between these two plants is their size. English bluebells are much shorter while Spanish bluebells stand quite tall. If you don’t have two plants to compare sizes though, take a look at the flowers.
English bluebell flowers fall to one side and droop over. They are also a dark blue in color, as opposed to Spanish bluebells with pastel blue flowers. These stand upright and do not droop over as the others do.
Can I grow bluebells in pots?
Bluebells are ideal plants for containers. The bulbs can be planted quite close together, either with other bluebells or different compatible bulbs like tulips or amaryllis, for a container overflowing with spring color. Ensure the potting soil is well-draining, or amend it with coconut coir and perlite to improve drainage.
The pot you choose should be deep enough to accommodate the roots and it should have plenty of drainage holes. Plant the bulb with the roots facing down about two inches deep in the soil. Once covered, press down gently on the soil with your hands to ensure soil contact with the bulb.
Water deeply and thoroughly once planted and keep well-watered, especially when flowering. While they do not like to sit in water, bluebells do prefer moist soil. As containers dry out quicker, this means you will likely need to water more often. Place the pot in a spot with dappled sun or partial shade for the best results.
If images of carpets of blue covering woodlands have inspired you to get out into the garden, arm yourself with some bluebells and get planting. Ensure you’ve got English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and not Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), or risk controlling the spread of these vigorous growers for years to come.
Once planted in the ground – whether from seed, bulb, or container – you can pretty much leave these plants to their own devices. They require little to no upkeep throughout the year and, bar the occasional extra watering, will flower reliably without a fuss. Essentially, if you’re looking to add a touch of blue or a flowering bulb that’s not much trouble, bluebells are the plants for you.