We now tend to accept the “invasion” of exotic plants such as the ever problematic rhododendrons or, arguably, the Himalayan balsam and a host of others. All, in their own way, cause problems and large amounts of money have been spent trying to control these plants. The rhododendron problem is readily seen in many places in the Highlands and it seems you cannot go far these days without seeing these dramatic looking shrubs that can dominate the landscape in the right conditions. In contrast other “invaders” are more subtle in so far as actually seeing them and who would have thought that the innocent looking bluebells in various woodlands could be under threat. The bluebell is one of the most iconic woodland plants and who could not be moved by the sight of large areas of bluebells that can dominate certain woodlands, especially older ones. Indeed, if you see bluebells along a road margin this means that at one time this would have been the edge of woodland that has been cleared, sometimes a long time ago.
The importance, in world terms, of the “British” bluebell cannot be over estimated as the UK supports up to 70 % of the world population of this attractive wildflower. Admittedly it can be found in such countries as Francs and northern Spain but it is only here that they flourish in such dense, widespread woodland areas. This year, with the vagaries of the weather, the flowering of the bluebells in the Highlands has been a hit or miss affair and there are still some areas where they have barely reached their full early summer splendour. Normally we consider them to be to be a spring flowering plant but not this year with the cold conditions. The colour of bluebells can vary and there are a few white ones to be found such as the ones in the photograph I took last week on the north side of the Beauly Firth. Other colour variations include a pink form.
As for the “invasion” it started, as many of these do, by gardeners bringing in different species to add variation to gardens. The newcomer is popularly known as the Spanish bluebell after it country of origin. They were first brought in as long ago as the late seventeenth century and their clusters of big, chunky pale blue flower were greatly admired. All seemed well, as they often do with “new” species until in 1909 they were first reported growing wild in the UK. The bluebells had jumped the garden wall and began to appear in places where they were never intended to get. Then the problems really began as they started to hybridise with native bluebells. As recently as 1962 the map showing the distribution of the hybrid bluebell gave no cause for alarm as there were only one or two sites with only one outside England. Then, the most recent map of last year shows an entirely different picture. Most of England and many parts of Wales have been colonised and even parts of Ireland, mainly in the southern areas. It has now spread into Scotland and large areas even around Inverness and to the east are prominent. At the moment the new hybrids do not seem to have invaded the ancient woodlands where the true native bluebill is still dominant. However, the march of the new hybrid seems to just keep going and the ancient woodland may not be sacrosanct any more.