Foreign invaders continue to threaten the British bluebell

Press release - 17 April 2009

Museum scientists call on public to help complete the jigsaw in botanical battle

Scientists at the Natural History Museum are calling on Britons to complete the botanical jigsaw puzzle of the battle between Spanish and British bluebells in a bid to discover where escapee garden varieties are threatening native species. Bluebell lovers can use an online survey to identify and record the different bluebell types found where they live and the records will be used to map where bluebells grow in the UK and when they flower. Scientists will use this information to learn about the evolution of and relationship between Britain’s bluebells, and measure the risk to our native species. The Natural History Museum is working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (RBGE), the Ramblers and Plantlife.


Dr Fred Rumsey, botanist at the Natural History Museum, said, ‘For many people, the bluebell is their favourite flower and we’ve been investigating the threat level that the Spanish bluebell poses to our native species. We’re at a crucial point now in research, where the picture will be complete with just a bit more information, which is why we need one more final push, and the help of the general public.’


The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and its cultivated varieties were introduced to British gardens more than 200 years ago. In 2004, a report by conservation charity Plantlife highlighted concerns that hybridisation with the native British bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) may be having negative effects and could threaten the future of the native species. Hybridisation can alter the genetic make up of a species and make it harder for it to survive. It can also make it more difficult to accurately identify the different bluebell types. Using field studies and genetic research, scientists have selected a set of characteristics to aid identification. These are all available online by visiting the Museum’s website.


Dr Rumsey explained, ‘Interestingly our results so far show that while we know where British bluebells have been found throughout the UK, we still need more help to establish a baseline as to where Spanish bluebells and their hybrid offspring are growing. British bluebells need a specific environment to live in and hybrids may be better adapted to changing environments, hence their seemingly rapid spread over the latter part of the last century. We need to know the threat level these invaders pose to help us predict how our woodlands will look as climate change develops,’ said Rumsey.


Bluebell hunters can take part in the survey by joining the Ramblers season of guided bluebell walks, taking place up and down the country throughout April, May and June. They are free and open to everyone. The Ramblers is urging walkers everywhere who spot early bluebells to fill in the Natural History Museum’s online survey.


Deborah Kohn, Research Fellow at RBGE said ‘Though bluebells are plentiful all over Britain, we found from surveying in Scotland that only our native species create the beautiful carpets of plants that make woodland walks so magical. More data could challenge that claim and help fill in the picture on the likely identity of clumps in smaller groups.’


Tom Franklin, CEO of the Ramblers, commented, ‘The deep blue hue and gothic arches of the British bluebell, currently under threat from hybridisation, have brought immeasurable pleasure to walkers throughout history. What better way to help preserve these flowers than putting on your boots and joining the Ramblers for a  bluebell walk through Britain’s loveliest countryside this spring and summer?’


Victoria Chester, Chief Executive of Plantlife, the leading charity working to conserve wild plants, said, ‘The bluebell was voted Britain’s most popular wild flower in a Plantlife public poll, and the sight of stunning carpets of bluebells in spring is something that everyone can enjoy. Making up between 25 and 50 per cent of the world’s total population of bluebells, our native species has its international stronghold in the UK and we have a global responsibility to conserve and protect it. Plantlife is raising awareness of the threats to our bluebells from the illegal collection of bulbs, the mislabelling of bulbs in garden centres and also from habitat loss. The survey is a great way for the public to play their part in helping to conserve one of the UK’s most iconic wild flowers.’


For more information and to take part in the survey, please visit


Notes for editors

  • Winner of Visit London’s 2008 Kids Love London Best Family Fun 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 Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh is a non-departmental public body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Executive. It is also a registered charity, managed by a board of trustees who are appointed by ministers. Its mission is to ‘explore and explain the world of plants’ and its primary functions are as a centre of scientific and horticultural excellence, keeper of the national collections and promoter of science in the public domain. The four gardens of RBGE – Edinburgh, Benmore, Dawyck and Logan – are numbered among the most popular visitor attractions in Scotland, bringing together many inter-related cultural areas of activity.
  • The Ramblers is Britain’s foremost walking charity. Details of the Ramblers’ guided bluebell walks can be found at
  • Plantlife is the UK’s leading charity working to protect wild plants and their habitats. For a free colour information leaflet on bluebells, please contact Plantlife on 01722 342730 or email
  • More information about bluebells is available at and survey results can also be submitted online.