I know this will be one of the most controversial posts I have made but, last autumn, I planted some Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides (Scilla) hispanica). This is considered a reckless action because, where these grow in proximity to the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) they hybridise to create a fertile hybrid (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). The native plant has flowers on a one-sided, arching spike with cream anthers and the blooms are narrow in shape. Both the hybrid and the Spanish bluebell have broader blooms, flowers arranged around an upright spike and the anthers are blue. For this reason it is, reasonably, considered a to be bad idea to plant Spanish bluebells near native populations of bluebells – in order to ensure genetic purity. It sounds like some horrid right-wing agenda but there is a risk that lots of populations of bluebells will become infiltrated with hybrids.
Fortunately, I am at least a mile away from the nearest clumps of bluebells, on a grassy bank, so I don’t think I am going to cause a problem and my bulbs are planted well away from the garden hedge. As it happens, the problem is not with the plant as much as it is with people (as usual). Spanish bluebells are very good garden plants, they are easy to grow and multiply by division and by seed. But a small clump can quickly become a vast swathe and, once the flowers are over and the broad, glossy leaves flop and yellow, people decide they are in just the spot they want to plant petunias and they dig them up and drive into the countryside and chuck them in a hedge. I am sure that most of the ‘wild’ Spanish bluebells are not from natural movement from gardens but because of dumping.
It is similar to the, more publicised, Japanese knotweed problem. This statuesque plant is, in the UK and Ireland, male. It cannot spread by seed. So how did it get into hedges and rough ground. Even though the roots are invasive, it can’t credibly spread under motorways. It has been spread by gardeners dumping it. The current hysteria surrounding the plant, with people frightened to compost it or take it to recycling centres only makes the problem worse – just what are people supposed to do with it if they dig it out of their garden!
But back to my bluebells. I like them because they remind me of, when I was young, nan used to visit for several weeks every May and we used to pick vases of lily-of-the-valley, London’s Pride, columbines and Spanish bluebells for her room. We had large clumps of bluebells.
Of course, I couldn’t just plant blue bluebells but chose ‘Miss World’ (another un-PC choice!) which is lilac pink. I have planted them among a ground cover of Lamium ‘Beacon Silver’ which should be capable of withstanding the dying bluebell leaves and the two of them are popular with bumblebees. I have noticed that the spikes of this are slightly branched, which seems unusual to me, and some of the blooms are doubled (or distorted if you are not a fan of them). They are planted under my young ornamental cherry and I thought the two might look good together but I got my timings way off so I will pretend to be clever and say that I planted them to carry on the pink theme!
Another far-from-sophisticated plant that I like, and has actually done quite well in the face of adversity, is hesperis or dames’ violet. This is a slightly coarse biennial or perennial with a woody base that is (fairly) easy from seed and comes in purple, lilac and white. There is a wonderful double white which is a challenge to find and to grow, but, for now, I am happy to have the single white and I hope it will seed. I will collect seeds and do my best to naturalise it – in the garden of course, though it is possibly native or a well established exotic and it is often seen on roadside verges and near rivers in grass. The flowers are small and typically ‘brassica’ but they have a wonderful, sweet, ‘creamy’ stock-like fragrance. It grows about 1m high when happy – mine are slightly smaller. Happy in sun or part shade, the fact that mine have done anything at all proves that clay soil is not an issue.
Also white but of a more ethereal shade, Geranium phaeum ‘Album’ has just started to bloom. All the ‘phaeums’ are easy and useful plants for shade, even quite dry shade, but my plant is in filtered sunlight beside a yellow-leaved cornus. It seems rather perverse to celebrate the white form of a plant best known for its dusky blooms but I really like the fresh green foliage and really delicate white flowers. I generally like white flowers and get excited about albino forms of plants, with the exception of blue flowers – I can never fathom why anyone wants a white plumbago or agapanthus. But then who wants pink bluebells!