Bluebells are great flowers. The best known bluebell wood we have in Kilkenny is Jenkinstown. To see a mature bluebell wood flowering at full tilt is one of the items that should be on everyone’s bucket list. They are going over a little now and somewhat past their best. But if you haven’t seen the display in Jenkinstown, take a quick trip out to see if there are many left to see. Even in decline, the blue haze spread out under the trees is something to behold. If it is too late, make a note to go and see them next year.
Growing bluebells yourself is however almost too easy. They are all too ready to grow, multiply and multiply again and if not kept in check, they could take over the place. So there are limits to their beauty in a confined space. They were made for great big woods and large, expansive places that can accommodate their tendency to spread like wildfire.
As well as taking the place over, bluebells have a habit of maturing untidily. The initial clump of leaves is pretty as they emerge from underground. They are shiny, glossy and lovely. When the leaves are about 20 to 25 cm long, flowers appear, rising a further 10 cms or so above the foliage. As they open, the flower stalks continue to stretch up and get taller. Meanwhile, suddenly, and seemingly way before their time, it all goes a bit mad on the foliage end. The leaves, well before they lose their gloss, begin to fall over, ending up lying flat on the ground like splayed green rosettes. That is all well and good in a wood where there is space for sprawling around. But in a domestic garden, space is needed for the Next Big Thing. The aim of most gardeners is to plant for succession and as early spring flowers such as daffodils go over, late spring flowers like tulips come up. These are followed by the summer stars like delphiniums, irises and paeonies. Then as the summery things die down, the ideal situation is that early autumn plants like rudbekias and dahlias should be in place and ready to fill in the gap. This is the theory. The practice is not always so perfectly synchronised. But we try.
However, it is extremely hard to get any class of succession and synchronization in train if plants as rampant and enthusiastic as bluebells are allowed to take hold in a small to medium sized garden. They fill out the space. Now the dense mat of foliage they create might be good at smothering out weeds. The trouble is that the flat blanket of foliage also prevents light getting to the emerging shoots of those wanted plants that only start putting on growth as the bluebells are dying down.
I had two clumps of bluebells in my garden, living under the shade of a cotoneaster. This is not a place that too many plants other than ivy and Arum italicum will happily bear with. Yet the bluebells arrived. I never knowingly invited them into the garden. A bulb or two must have found their way in via the soil on some other plant. Or maybe the seeds came in with a bird. In any case they landed and began to grow with gusto. They were lovely. They are not the lesser spotted, delicate native bluebells or Hyacinthoides non scripta. They are the altogether more robust Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica. The Spanish bluebell is sometimes painted as the horticultural equivalent of the bolshy grey squirrel; the delicate native flower taking on the roles of the much loved and refined little red squirrel.
But as stated already, while a bit pushy, the Spanish bluebell is neertheless lovely.
My two clumps turned into about ten clumps. And they have migrated from under the shade of the evergreen cotoneaster. They are now also out in the sunny border where space is at a premium. I am not putting up with that. They don’t need sun but I do for plants that I actually chose to buy and plant in sunny positions. The bluebells will have to go.
Luckily I have a neighbour with a small wood garden. At the moment there are no plants under their trees apart from ivy and arums. The bluebells will do nicely there.
Everyone will be happy. The only thing is that among my original bluebells, there were one of two white flowers. They have not multiplied up like their blue relations. I will be keeping them and they will be transplanted to the shaded spot of what is supposedly a white bed at the front of the house where they will be as welcome as diamonds. White bluebells will add a bit of welcome late spring gleam to the shady ground under the laurel hedge where the white hardy geraniums and white stripy gardener’s garters will later take up the baton. It’s all go…