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Press release

Museum calls on public to help save Britain's bluebells

Scientists at the Natural History Museum are asking the public to become bluebell detectives this spring to discover if escapee garden varieties are threatening Britain's favourite wildflower. Bluebell lovers can use an online survey, called Bluebells: Exploring British Wildlife, to identify and record the different bluebell types found where they live. The recordings will be used to map where bluebells grow in the UK and when they flower. Scientists will also use the information to learn about the evolution and relationship of Britain's bluebells, and measure the risk to our native species.

The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and its cultivated varieties were introduced to UK gardens over 200 years ago. In 2004, a report by conservation charity Plantlife highlighted concerns that hybridisation may be having negative effects and could threaten the future of the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). Hybridisation can alter the genetic make up of a species and make it harder for it to survive. It can also make it harder to accurately identify the different bluebell types. Using field studies and genetic research, scientists at the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh have selected a new set of characteristics to aid identification. The public will be testing these characteristics as part of the survey.

The impact of our changing climate may also be cause for concern. 'Britain's bluebells may be undergoing rapid evolutionary changes,' said Mark Spencer, curator of the British plant collection at the Natural History Museum. 'Combined with changes in climate we really don't know what this means for their chances of survival. We may even start to see regional extinctions as weather patterns change, but we need the public's help if we are to understand what's really happening.'

'Voted Britain's most popular wild flower in a Plantlife public poll, the native bluebell has its international stronghold in the UK, with more than 50 per cent of the world's total population,' said Katherine Steward, Plantlife's People for Plants Officer. 'This means that we have a global responsibility to conserve it. Plantlife plays a leading role by raising awareness of the threats from illegal collection, mislabelling of bulbs in garden centres and habitat loss. This spring's survey is a terrific opportunity for the public to play their part to help conserve one of the UK's most iconic wild flowers.'

Bluebells epitomise British springtime, bursting into colour in April, May and June in woodlands, hedgerows and other shady places. The Spanish bluebell is widely cultivated and thrives in many urban settings such as gardens and parks. Early growth and flowering has given bluebells a head start over later developing plants, but warmer winters may mean they are losing their advantage as other plants start growing earlier.

For more information and to take part in the survey, visit www.nhm.ac.uk/bluebells.

Ends

Notes for editors

Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science. This has been greatly enhanced by the Darwin Centre, a major new initiative, which offers visitors unique access behind the scenes of the Museum. Phase One of the project opened to the public in 2002 and Phase Two is scheduled to open in 2009.

Plantlife is the UK's leading charity working to protect wild plants and their habitats

For more information on how gardeners can help protect bluebells, please contact Plantlife for a free, full-colour leaflet on 01722 342730 or email: enquiries@plantlife.org.uk


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