Bluebells for woodland gardens

Spanish bluebells          James Petts/Flickr 

Spanish bluebells          James Petts/Flickr 

When people think of spring bulb flowers, the ones that immediately come to mind are daffodils, tulips and crocuses.

These are lovely, to be sure, the very essence of spring. But they are not without a downside or two as the seasoned gardener will acknowledge.

Crocuses and tulips are favorite snack foods of squirrels, chipmunks and voles, which often will dig up the bulbs and eat them during a hard winter. Come spring, your newly opened flowers may be promptly devoured by rabbits or deer.

Daffodils are ironclad in that all parts of the plant contain oxalic acid crystals which render them unpalatable. Still, after a period of years the clumps may grow so crowded that flowering stops. Blossoms are scarce until you dig them up and divide them — a job that’s hardly quick and easy.

Please allow me to introduce a spring bulb that has endeared itself to me with its sturdy constitution and carefree, reliable ways. Meet the bluebell, English or Spanish, a plant which also answers to the name "woodland hyacinth."

Taxonomists have been fiddling around with the botanical name of this little guy for some time. I first knew it as Scilla campanulata, then found it listed in the genus Endymion. Lately it's most often catalogued as Hyacinthoides hispanica (the Spanish strain) or Hyacinthoides non-scripta (its English cousin).

Whatever you call it, here's a plant that will naturalize under a canopy of trees, spreading a fragrant carpet of magical blue in a woodland just awakening to spring. I have a long-established colony of the Spanish bluebells and here's what I love about them:

  • No critter eats them, dormant or blooming.
  • They flower every year without fail and crowding from natural multiplication doesn't seem to affect the blossom quotient.
  • They grow in fairly deep shade and inhospitable locations. Mine border the skirts of mature spruce trees and wander under a dogwood along a gravel parking area. This location puts them on the north side of the spruce, which means they are usually shaded and in a spot where ice and snow takes its sweet time melting.
  • They require no care whatsoever. I have never watered them, fertilized them or divided them although I do admire them extravagantly and tell them so often.
  • They will propagate themselves not only via bulb multiplication but also occasionally by way of seed. I now and then find them blooming in odd corners of the yard where I never planted them.
A bluebell woods     Jodi/Flickr

A bluebell woods     Jodi/Flickr

I can tell instantly when my bluebells are blooming even if I come home after dark. Their light, sweet scent wafts on the spring air like a melody I'm glad to hear again. I wish they made a perfume from this fresh and uncloying fragrance, similar to but less dense than that of a traditional fat Dutch hyacinth of the kind you buy in pots.

I have more bluebells under trees in my back yard where they mingle beautifully with the old-fashioned bleeding hearts. Spanish bluebells also come in pink and white, but a pink bluebell is such an anomaly that you'd have to revert to calling them woodland hyacinths so people don't think you've lost your color wheel.

The English types are equally charming, slightly smaller in all proportions with narrower leaves. I can picture in my mind's eye some hoary forest of ancient oaks in the English countryside blanketed with spring bluebells. Britain is home to more than 20 percent of the world's bluebell population, I have read — and good for them.

Look for these little beauties next fall at bulb planting time (any major bulb supplier will offer them), and don't be put off by the slightly sinister web of myth woven around them.

Endymion means "with whom the moon is in love." In mythology he was a handsome shepherd lad of Asia Minor, the human lover of the moon goddess Selene. She pleaded with Zeus to make him immortal so that she might kiss him to sleep every night forever. In the contrary way of the gods, Zeus put Endymion in an eternal sleep, which to a mortal like me sounds deadly.

The other namesake in play is Hyacinthus, a good-looking Greek youth who was son of the king of Sparta. He and Apollo used to hunt together and play field sports, including tossing a heavy quoit or metal ring. Apollo's flew high but a jealous sprite named Zephyr sent the quoit spiraling back to earth where it hit Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. Grief striken, Apollo formed a flower from his friend's blood and named it after Hyacinthus.

Despite the tone of ancient lore, the British consider bluebells lucky and associate them with romance and weddings. But that's only if the flowers remain outdoors — bringing them in the house will loose a dreadful depression on the whole family. I'd advise you to leave them on the plant. While charming and sweet-smelling, within a day they're as dead as poor Hyacinthus and no moon kisses will revive them.