Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

The Meaning of Bluebells

The bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is a perennial bluish-purple bell-shaped wildflower of the Lily family (Liliaceae). It is a European plant, common in the British Isles.

Bluebells grow up to 50cm from bulbs and bloom from April to June. They form stunning carpets in their favoured habitat, which is partially shaded woodland. It has surprisingly few alternative common names, but one is Wild Hyacinth.

Bluebells are one of the few wildflowers to cope with living alongside bracken. They manage this by flowering early, before the bracken has started to blot out the sun and cast its deep shade.

(The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is similar in appearance, but with subtle differences to flowers, which are less curved back and leaf shape, which is slightly broader. There are many that share characteristics of both, so it is sometimes better to enjoy the sight and call it a bluebell than spend a lot of time looking for the right Latin.

There are also a few bluebells that rebel against their name and wear different colours; white is fairly common, see below.)

The bulbs can in theory be used to make glue, but that is hopefully theoretical as it would be illegal in most places and highly undesirable anywhere to savage these beautiful flowers in such an unnecessary way.

The Bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Natural Navigation

Bluebells are an Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI), signifying that the wood you are in has probably been there continuously since 1600.

The most particular characteristic of the bluebell is its preference for places that are both shady and sunny. It loves some sunlight, but doesn’t thrive in open spaces where the sun is on it all day long. This preference may be because the plants need both sun and humidity to thrive. In my experience this means bluebells are a sign that you are nearer the edge of the woods than the heart. I also find carpets on the top of some hills, where light seems to find its way in more easily.

Overall bluebells are more common on the southern sides of hills, but in more sunny areas it favours the northern side of any incline.

The poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, noted that the bluebells were ‘all hanging their heads one way’ and I have found them, in company with most other insect-pollinated wildflowers, to have a preference for pointing south. Very frequently the bells hang on the southern side.

They are a sign of gentle gradients and dry soils as will not be found on very steep slopes or wet areas. They are lowland plants, growing up to about 340m (approx 1000 feet).

It is very sensitive to trampling or grazing, so it is a sign of mainly undisturbed areas. The leaves cannot regenerate, so it is a good idea to avoid walking through the carpets or stepping too close to the plants.

If you see bluebells, the other plant you are most likely to find nearby is a bramble (Rubus fructicosus). Sycamores, oaks and beechs are the most likely neighbouring trees.

A Bluebell pointing south
White Bluebells
Bluebells thrive in woodlands that offer a mixture of sun and shade, as this time lapse shows.
The Spanish Bluebell – Hyacinthoides hispanica

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