How to eradicate bluebells

This is one of a new series of posts based on real questions I have been asked. Feel free to add to the answers or include your ideas and experiences.

Bluebells (that is the bluebells of Ireland and England and Wales – Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are surely the most loved of all wild flowers. (In Scotland bluebells are Campanula rotundifolia, the harebell of England – and hyacinthoides are called wild hyacinths.)

The population of bluebells in the British Isles is important because it accounts for 50% of the world’s population. And yet it grows with great abundance in woodlands and open places where it creates great carpets of blue in late spring. It is often said to be an indicator of ancient woodland and I remember it growing near my childhood home in Surrey, under oak and ash, usually in combination with common spotted orchids and wild garlic. It is a typical woodland plant, starting to grow and flower before the trees come into leaf and then rapidly dying back so that, by the time the trees are in leaf, all that remains are stiff stems of seed pods. I have written about them before, but will add some details below.

Most people covet bluebells, which has led, in the past, to collecting from the wild, which is now illegal and, I hope, eradicated.

So it was a surprise to get a question from a reader who wanted to get rid of bluebells… ‘The bluebells in my garden increase in number every year. I tried to dig out all the bulbs but they are now coming through again. How can I get rid of them. I also believe they may be a protected plant – does that mean I am stuck with them? ‘

This is a problem that many of us would love to have. It can be difficult to understand why anyone would want to get rid of them but, like any plant, if in the wrong place bluebells could be a problem. While they are hardly a problem under shrubs, if they are among small perennials or alpines their lush foliage could smother small plants and, if not deadheaded, they can seed prolifically. Even so, it reminds me of a lady that asked me how to get rid of lesser celandines in her shrub border. I asked what she wanted to grow there instead and she said ‘nothing’. I tried to argue that they were not harming the shrubs and would die back by May so the ground them would be clear but she wanted to go into battle.

Bluebells are protected in the wild and it is illegal to pick or dig up for sale from the wild or on a landowners’ property. But, if in your own garden I am pretty sure that you have the right to remove them. Bluebells, like many bulbs, are easily killed with an application of glyphosate, applied early on before flowering. I feel awful suggesting this but…

It would be better to pick the flowers or deadhead them to prevent seed formation and then dig up the bulbs and give them away. Or why not pot them and sell them at a local plant sale?

It is not a good idea to replant them in the wild because they may not actually be wild bluebells.

We are all aware (especially if you make a habit of reading the Daily Mail) of the evil Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica). This long-cultivated plant from Western Spain and Portugal is a great garden plant and its only failing is that it is rather indiscriminate when it comes to choosing a sexual partner and so hybridises with the English bluebell when the two are in close proximity. The two are quite easy to tell apart: English bluebells have yellow pollen, deep blue, narrow flowers and, most tellingly, flowers on one side of the arching scape: Spanish bluebells have blue pollen, more bell-shaped flowers arranged all around the upright stems. It is more robust in all ways, and has broader leaves too. It is often found in old gardens. The hybrid of the two is intermediate in appearance. These hybrids are possibly a bigger threat to wild bluebells than collecting, rather like Scottish wildcats being endangered because domesticated moggies sometimes like to live a bit dangerously! Surveys (www.plantlife.org.uk) have found that pure E. non-scripta stands are more likely in wooded areas rather than other habitats, emphasising the preference for shade of this species over the Spanish bluebell that is better adapted to full sun.

It is possible that this lady had Spanish bluebells in her garden and they certainly can become invasive.

The best way to get rid of excess bluebells is to hand dig them, while in growth, and let them dry out before composting, or let them rot in a bucket of water. Alternatively, you could mulch the area, with plastic, cardboard or compost, once they emerge, to prevent them getting light and to rot the leaves. It is important that they are not allowed to set seeds because there will be bulbs of various sizes and seeds in the ground that will continue to grow for years after the first attempt of eradication.

But it does seem a shame to kill them. I have a small clump and it doesn’t increase fast enough for me! Bluebells tend to prefer acid soils and I would love to have enough to plant under my deciduous azaleas – the two plants are made for each other.

In a wild population of bluebells there are often albinos with white flowers. The Spanish bluebell has cultivars with pink and white flowers and I think (though I don’t have one to check) that pink bluebells in wild populations, may be hybrids.

Beware the bluebells

It is not surprising that such an abundant wildflower has lots of folklore. Because they often grow in gloomy woods, they are widely associated with fairies and they rang the bluebells to bring together gatherings among the flowers. If a human heard the ringing of the bells they would die. Walking through a bluebell wood and trampling the bluebells would anger the fairies and picking them for the home was unlucky.

In Ireland, bluebells (Coinnle corra) are a symbol of everlasting love while herbalists believed that bluebells could cure nightmares, though I am not sure what you had to do with them! The sticky sap was used in bookbinding because it is toxic (so be careful when picking your own bluebells) and prevented insects attacking the books.

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One Comment on “How to eradicate bluebells”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    December 3, 2022 at 8:18 am #

    We planted Spanish Bluebells here years ago and they are a blasted nuisance. I am gradually getting rid of them – digging them up when in growth – but it is a very slow process. There are a very few native bluebells in a copse near us but not in great number.

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