The English Bluebell – Just Another Invasive Weed in the Garden?

Bluebells may be the epitome of British woodland, but many British gardeners are exasperated by their proliferation in unwanted areas of the garden.

The English bluebell’s ubiquitous presence in springtime, coupled with its propensity to spread rapidly could mean trouble for anyone not prepared for its invasiveness.

Bluebell Facts

The Wildlife Trust’s website, states that native English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) has been protected by law since 1988, through its listing in The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). The law makes it illegal to collect bulbs from the wild for sale. Moreover, in England and Wales if you don’t own the land they grow on, it is illegal to dig up the bulbs for any purpose, although you may pick the leaves, flowers or seeds for your own use. However, in Scotland, you may not take any part of the plant.

The larger Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is not protected by English law, and whilst very similar to the English bluebell, its ability to hybridise with the native English bluebell (forming the hybrid Hyacinthoides massartiana) could potentially extinguish the English bluebell altogether.


The Bluebell as a Pest

Don’t get me wrong. The bluebell flower, in its native woodlands, is absolutely glorious, forming a hazy blue carpet during late April and May. They prefer shady, moist conditions and so woodlands are the ideal habitat. Unfortunately, it seems that a shady spot in the garden is also the perfect home for bluebells.

However, the bluebell’s ability to multiply at a staggering rate using underground runners, and its free self-seeding, means that many average-sized British gardens are over-run with them within a few years. Whilst they are undeniably pretty, Bluebells encroaching on manicured lawns and carefully planted herbaceous borders can become more than a nuisance. Let them be at your peril, as they will soon take over the whole garden, swamping lawns and other plants.

How to Get Rid of Bluebells

Regrettably, there is no easy answer to this problem. According to the Royal Horticultural Society’s website, weedkiller is not effective in getting rid of bluebells. Instead, they recommend digging out the bluebells, complete with bulbs and underground runners. This is not as simple as it sounds. Bluebell bulbs can be notoriously deep – up to a foot down – and it is exasperating putting a fork into the ground to its full length, easing back the earth only to see the bluebell flowers and leaves slip between the forks, still firmly rooted in the ground. It is then a case of digging deeper with a hand fork until you have located the bulbs – and prising them out with your fingers and hand fork. The photograph at the end of this article illustrates just how deep the bulbs can be, bearing in mind that it is only the dark green leaves and flowers that appear above ground level.

I have also found they often embed themselves in the root systems of other plants. In this instance, using the trusty garden fork again, lift the earth around the offending plant, preferably whilst the earth is damp, so that you can ease the bulbs out without too much disturbance to surrounding root systems. The RHS also warns not to put them in with normal compost for two years, and from my own experience I wish I had known this advice before I threw mine into the compost heap.

Like other perennial weeds, they are very difficult to eradicate. You can comfort yourself with the knowledge that they only appear once a year and when they do, that it really is just a case of trying to keep their numbers down as best you can. If you haven’t got bluebells in your garden, and you are thinking of doing so, it may be worth considering planting them in pots.