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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 18th August 2011

I returned to Holy Island this morning to get some more pictures of the ragwort I photographed for Monday’s blog. Esther Hegt said you can’t separate species just from the flowers so I wanted to get some pictures of leaves.

I’m determined to have a crack at identifying the species myself and then ask Esther to confirm or correct me but I’m a bit rushed to do that now. So, don’t worry, this isn’t another blog just devoted to Senecio jacobaea, or Jacobaea vulgaris as I’m trying to get used to calling it.

Rather, the question of different species, with the added possibility of crosses and hybrids between two species started me thinking about bluebells and what the preservation of species is really about.

I sometimes think that, unless you have a portable DNA test kit with you, you can’t be absolutely sure what it is you’re looking at. There are a lot of genera where you would be hard pressed to confuse different plants. It’s pretty easy, for example, to distinguish Papaver orientale from Papaver somniferum or Papaver californicum. Similarly, Fritillaria imperialis and Fritillaria meleagris are very different plants.

But, there are others where the number of species and the varieties together with the accidental crosses and the deliberate hybrids make deciding exactly what a plant is by a casual look very difficult indeed. That’s why, on this site, I use the notation spp., meaning more than one species, for genera like Narcissus, Digitalis and Delphinium.

But precise identification matters to some people. When I was still at the Alnwick Garden, someone was quite distressed to find that the plant labelled Ruta graveolens was, actually, another species though it had been supplied by a specialist company and the gardeners had never spotted that it was wrongly identified. After the complaint, close examination showed that it was not graveolens but the differences were only slight.

Not Hyacinthoides non-scripta, English bluebell

Not Hyacinthoides non-scripta,
English bluebell

And then there’s the plant where maintaining the right species becomes a campaign. And that brings us on to bluebells.

Let’s begin with defining our terms. In Scotland the plant known as bluebell is Campanula rotundifolia; in England this is known as harebell. The bluebell in England should be Hyacinthoides non-scripta particularly if it is growing in the wild. In gardens, however, it is far more likely that bluebell means Hyacinthoides hispanica. To avoid confusion, people will, sometimes, talk about English bluebells and Spanish bluebells.

Because of concern about Hyacinthoides non-scripta coming under pressure in the wild, the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it a protected plant and the legislation was further enhanced in 1998 making it an offence to trade in wild Hyacinthoides non-scripta bulbs or seeds. Because of the difficulty of proving that a Hyacinthoides non-scripta bulb is not from a wild source this, effectively, means that only the Spanish bluebell is sold by garden centres. It is said that the Hyacinthoides hispanica was first introduced to the UK in the 17th century so the measures taken in the late 20th century can’t be wholly to blame for the dominance of the Spanish bluebell in the commercial market.

The ‘problem’ came when Spanish bluebells escaped into areas where the native had grown. Not only is the hispanica a more robust species than the non-scripta meaning it tends to drive out the ‘true’ bluebell, the two species freely hybridise. So, it is not a case of needing to be able to identify the two species; the many hybrids now found in the wild mean that it is only possible to separate bluebells into non-scripta and not. That is, if you can find it, you can recognise the pure Hyacinthoides non-scripta but if any sort of hybridisation has occurred it is much harder to give the resulting plant a full name. The image on this page is just labelled 'not Hyacinthoides non-scripta' because I can't be sure of its exact description.

At the beginning of the last paragraph, I put quote marks around the word ‘problem’. This is because, today, while I was out walking I couldn’t make up my mind over whether I agree that the invasion of the Spanish bluebell is an important concern.

After all, both species and all the hybrids look like bluebells and are capable of creating those stunning shimmering carpets of blue colour. The average person, I’m sure, doesn’t notice any difference unless it is pointed out to them and even experts get it wrong. The bluebell was another plant that, it turned out, was misidentified in the Alnwick Garden. I only know this because the picture I had on this site was of the plant in the Poison Garden which was labelled Hyacinthoides non-scripta. It was only a few months ago that someone contacted me to say the plant was not a true English bluebell.

I’m really not sure where I come down in this argument. If the Spanish bluebell has been here since the 1600s, perhaps, we should accept it, especially since it has successfully interbred with the Hyacinthoides non-scripta. I know the English bluebell belongs in traditional woodlands but I can’t help thinking that it’s harking too far back to say that it is the only bluebell to be allowed in wild areas today.

I think I’m just a little concerned that the idea of keeping the two species separate and eradicating any bluebell in the wild that is not a pure Hyacinthoides non-scripta is some sort of horticultural apartheid.