Clumps of bluebells and wild garlic can give your garden a lovely woodland atmosphere
Clumps of bluebells and wild garlic can give your garden a lovely woodland atmosphere, says horticulturalist Martin Fish
One of the highlights for me at this time of the year is getting into the countryside to see the new spring growth and wild flowers. Bluebells and wild garlic are always very impressive from late April. They can be found growing in woodland and along hedge rows. Both of these plants have naturalised and form carpets of foliage and flowers to create wonderful natural ground cover.
The common or English bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta – often indicates ancient woodland, that is to say natural woodland that has been in existence since 1600. The English bluebell is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which means landowners are not allowed to lift and sell bulbs from their land. It is also a criminal offence to remove the bulbs from the wild without permission of the owner.
Bluebells prefer dapple shade in a woodland position and in their natural habitat flower and start to die down by the time the canopy of trees above comes into leaf. The white bulbs then lie dormant through the rest of the year until they are ready to burst into new growth the following spring.
The Spanish bluebell – Hyacinthoides hispanica – is often looked upon as the bad guy because in the wild it cross-pollinates with our native English bluebells to produce a hybrid bluebell. Having said that, the Spanish cousin has been grown in England since around 1680. The Spanish bluebell is not protected. It’s not wise to plant them near colonies of English bluebells or to dump old bulbs in hedgerows just in case of hybridisation.
In Victorian times Spanish bluebells were very popular as a garden plant, hence the reason so many older houses have established clumps in their gardens. They produce more flowers on taller, straighter stems and are over-all showier as a garden plant than our native bluebell with its delicate arched stems of flowers and narrow leaves.
Wild garlic – Allium ursinum – is a native of Northern Europe and has colonised large areas of the UK. It flowers at the same time as bluebells and the two are often found growing together in woodland. Wild garlic also grows from small bulbs and is a member of the onion family and closely related to chives. It’s totally hardy and in some areas is a classed as a nuisance due to the fact that in the correct growing conditions it spreads rapidly.
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When in flower in late spring you can’t fail to notice the garlic-like scent from the white flowers and lush green foliage. All parts of the plant are edible which has made the plant popular with many chefs over recent years. The green leaves can be chopped into salads, boiled as a vegetable or made into soup. The bulbs can also be used as garlic cloves and the flowers used in salads. Wild garlic is very high in antioxidants and reportedly helps to reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol and its juice is said to have antiseptic properties.
Although bluebells and wild garlic are classed as wild flowers, they have a place in gardens too, especially where you are trying to create a natural, woodland area.
Both plants need reasonably well-drained soil to grow well and will tolerate some shade, in fact they grow best when out of direct sunlight. Ideally they should be planted in the dapple shade of trees or large shrubs and allowed to naturalise. Both will naturally increase themselves from bulbs and both will self-seed. Grow them in clumps for a natural effect and mix in a few other woodland plants such as foxgloves to provide colour later in the season. Once established you will have your own little area of countryside in your own garden.
It is illegal to lift English bluebells from the wild, but several specialist nurseries sell cultivated plants either as bulbs for planting in the autumn or in the greenhouse. Very often you can find potted bluebells in garden centres and nurseries.
Seed and plants of wild garlic are also available by mail order or from garden centres. Alternatively ask a friend with the plants in their garden to spare a small clump to get you started.
Martin Fish is show director of the North of England Horticultural Society, organisers of the Harrogate Flower Shows. He is a qualified horticulturalist and writes for several gardening publications and broadcasts for the BBC.
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