The blue bell flower is one of the most popular sights of spring, carpeting gardens, meadows, woodlands and glens. I, like many people, take great delight in walking through the springtime woods to admire these delightful blooms. But did you know that there is more than one type of blue bell flower?
This guide to the blue bell flower is designed to highlight the key features and differences between the main blue bell flower varieties, helping you to easily identify them. We will also provide you with lots of blue bell flower care and planting tips so that you can cultivate a floral spring carpet of your very own.
A spring carpet of blue bell flower plants.
What is a Blue Bell Flower?
The blue bell is a perennial plant that typically blooms during the spring or early summer months. Most specimens start to bloom in April or May. However, the plants can bloom earlier or later depending on the growing conditions and weather. For many people the emergence of these colorful blooms is a harbinger of spring and warmer weather.
A member of the lily family, the plants grow from a bulb. As the name suggests the blue bell flower is shaped like a bell, and is typically blue in color. Upon closer inspection purple hues may also be visible on the petals.
These plants are an attractive addition to the garden.
Adding ethereal beauty to the landscape, mass plantings can look particularly effective. The gentle fragrance that the blooms emit when fully open further adds to their charm.
This spring flowering plant has long been seen as a symbol of gratitude as well as love or affection. The bloom is also used as a symbol of humility. This is because the open blooms weigh the floral spike down, giving the appearance that it is bowing down to the viewer.
Some people believe that the bell shaped blooms can ring. A ringing blue bell flower is said to summon fairies to the garden. For other people, the ringing of a blue bell flower can be an ominous sign, a forewarning that someone close to them will soon die. These superstitions meant that for a long time it was thought to be unlucky to have the plants inside your home. People were also discouraged from picking the plants.
Despite these superstitions, the blue bell flower remains one of the most popular spring blooms.
Different Types of Blue Bell Flower
There are five main types of blue bell flower. There are also hybrid varieties. The following guide is designed to explain the key features, preferences and habits of the main types enabling you to identify them.
1 English Blue Bell
Also known as the British Blue Bell (Hyacinthoides Non-Scripta), this variety is native to both England and France. Producing purple-blue blooms, the English variety has been a common sight in gardens and wooded areas since at least the 16th century.
The English cultivar typically reaches a height of 12 inches. When fully open, the petals curl up towards their tips, further adding to the attraction. Interestingly, the blooms of this variety all form on the same side of the stalk. As the blooms mature the stalks bend, delicately arching towards the ground. Hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8, unlike other varieties the pollen of English blooms has no discernible color.
When in full bloom, the stems of English varieties bend gently down towards the ground.
Best planted in the fall, this is a fragrant variety. When fully open, a mass of these blooms adds not only color to the garden but also fills the air with a soft, fresh fragrance. Thriving in moist, well draining soil that is rich in organic matter, the English variety of blue bell flower is ideal for woodland and forest planting schemes.
2 Spanish Blue Bell
This is a late blooming variety, typically emerging towards the end of spring. Native to the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish blooms can look similar to the English cultivars. However, unlike English types, Spanish varieties are rarely found in forests or woodlands. The Spanish variety, also known as the Wood Hyacinth, instead, prefers the more open space of areas such as fields and meadows.
A tall cultivar, Spanish types can reach up to 3 ft in height. The blooms emerge and open in a cluster, covering the entire stem. Despite the weight of the blooms, the stalks of the Spanish cultivar remain straight and upright. They do not curve like the English variety. The Spanish variety also has a quicker growth habit than the English cultivar. This means that in some areas it is considered invasive. Like other types of blue bell flower, the Spanish cultivar is popular with pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, the pollen of the Spanish cultivar can be blue or green in color.
Spanish cultivars produce blooms on both sides of the stem.
The Spanish blue bell flower (Hyacinthoides hispanica) produces blooms in shades of white and pink as well as the more common blue blooms. Typically cultivated as a garden plant, this variety thrives in partial shade positions. These plants are ideal for planting in those tricky northern full sun positions where partial shade comes from the south.
3 Virginia Blue Bell
This particular variety is native to the Eastern part of North America. A member of the Boraginaceae family, along with Comfrey and Forget-Me Nots, the Virginia is considered to be one of the most attractive spring blooms.
When floral buds first emerge they can appear pink or pale white in color but as they develop and open the blooms darken to a rich blue hue. When fully open the bell shaped sky blue bloms of the Virginia sit above masses of rounded gray-green foliage.
Typically 18 to 24 inches in height, the Virginia cultivar blooms from early to mid spring in most climates. In favorable conditions, they continue to bloom during the early months of summer.
Virginia blooms are more open than other types of blue bell flower.
Also known as the Scottish Blue Bell, Harebells typically grow in meadows that are surrounded by hares. The name harbell refers to both this and the old belief that witches were able to turn themselves into hares and hide amongst the plants.
Commonly found in areas across the Northern Hemisphere, the Harebell is not strictly a blue bell flower, Harebells are instead members of the Campanula family. These surprisingly resilient plants thrive in poor conditions such as sandy soils, rocky positions as well as meadows and fields.
Reaching a height of 12 to 18 inches, Harebells are popular with pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds. When fully open the pale blue blooms sit above mounds of green foliage.
Tubular Harebell blooms.
Not strictly part of the blue bell flower family, Campanula plants are often grouped with the former because they produce similar looking, bell-shaped blooms. In fact, the name Campanula is derived from the Latin for “little bell”.
There are over 500 recorded species of Campanula. Most of these can be found growing in the subtropical parts of the Northern Hemisphere. You can also find Campanula plants in the mountainous regions of Asia and Africa. Depending on the species, Campanula plants can be perennial, biennial or annual. While some varieties can reach up to 6 ft in height, smaller alpine or arctic types rarely exceed 0.7 inches making them difficult to spot.
Campanula plants can be Identified by the shape of their blooms. The bloom is usually a bell or star shape. It can be cup and saucer shaped or even tubular. A popular choice for cottage gardens and rock gardens, most Campanula plants are winter hardy and easy to grow. This makes the Campanula a good low maintenance ground cover choice. As well as the more common blue, Campanula cultivars also produce blooms in shades of pink and white.
Not strictly a blue bell flower, Campanula is often grouped with the plants.
If you want to learn more about growing Campanula plants, why not consult our growing guide?
In addition to the 5 main types outlined above there are also hybrid varieties. These are usually produced by crossing the English or Common cultivar with the Spanish variety.
Hybrids can be identified by their shape, size and scent. Most hybrid varieties display many of the Spanish types best characteristics including broad foliage, a light fragrance and drooping blooms. Hybrid petals can be smaller than the Spanish cultivar and, like English types, the tips may roll back. The stem is usually stiff and upright but can bend slightly when in full bloom.
How to Grow your own Blue Bell Flower
The blue bell flower grows from a bulb. When sourcing your bulbs alway use reputable suppliers such as garden centers or plant nurseries.
You can plant bulbs either in the fall or the spring. Green bulbs, those that have just bloomed, are best planted in late spring. Dry bulbs are usually planted in late summer or the fall.
Most varieties thrive in rich soil that drains well. Many, such as the English type, prefer the soil to be slightly acidic. However, the plants are not fussy and can also grow in neutral soils. With a little extra care, the plants can also be encouraged to grow in chalky and sandy soil as well as heavy, clay soils as long as it isn’t too wet. Ideally the soil pH level should measure between 5.5 and 6.5. A soil test kit provides an easy way to discover the pH level of your soil.
While these plants can set bud and bloom in full sun, many cultivars are naturally found in woodland habitats where light is typically dappled or partial. This means that these plants tend to do better in partial shade positions. These reliable spring bulbs are a great choice for underplanting around trees and shrubs.
Before planting, weed the soil. You should also take this opportunity to work in well-rotted manure or compost, this enriches the soil and gives your plants a further boost.
Plant green bulbs around 4 inches deep. Space the bulbs roughly 4 inches apart. Bulbs planted in the fall can be planted slightly deeper, around 5.5 inches and spaced slightly further apart. Planting a little deeper helps to protect the bulbs from the effects of the cold as well as from the potentially harmful effects of the soil drying out.
When planting a mass of blue bell flower bulbs, don’t worry about neat lines. Planting in a slightly erratic way, or adopting the scatter technique, creates a more natural look.
After planting, cover the bulbs with soil or fresh compost and water well.
Don’t be too disappointed if the bulbs don’t set bud and bloom in the first year. Sometimes they require a year or two to settle and establish themselves before blooming.
Some blue bell flower types have a vigorous growth habit. This means that they are sometimes described and treated as weeds. To curtail their spread, you can also grow these spring bulbs in pots or planters.
To plant in a pot, fill the container with good quality potting soil or compost. The container should have lots of drainage holes in the bottom. Plant as described above.
Blue Bell Flower Care
Once planted these are low maintenance bulbs.
During the spring and summer months, water the soil around the bulbs regularly. Aim to keep the soil lightly moist. It should not be allowed to fully dry out. The amount of water you need to apply varies depending on the local climate. In moderate climates you will need to apply around 1 inch of water a week.
Giving your bulbs a regular drink of water is particularly important in the weeks after planting. Regularly watering your bulbs encourages roots to develop and helps the bulbs to settle in their new position. Allow no more than the top layer of soil to dry out between waterings. A soil moisture sensor helps you to gauge the moisture content of your soil, helping to prevent the problems caused by overwatering.
In the spring, before new shoots emerge, work a dose of Jobes Organics Balanced Granular Fertilizer into the soil. Take care not to damage the bulbs as you weed the area. A regular dose of diluted, general purpose plant food is appreciated after watering. Liquid fertilizers can be incorporated into your regular watering routing. Applying a dose of fertilizer after the blooms fade gives the bulbs a boost as they build up their size and strength for the following year.
Regularly weed the soil around the plants. Fast growing weeds can block out sunlight, smothering shoots before they properly develop.
Once the floral interest has faded for the year, there is no need to cut the plants back. Instead, allow the foliage to die back naturally. This gives the bulbs time to harvest and store energy to sustain them through the fall and winter months before returning stronger the following year.
While the foliage can be allowed to naturally die back, the faded floral spikes and spent blooms are best removed before setting seed. This is particularly important if you are cultivating varieties such as the Spanish cultivar which has a vigorous growth habit. Here regularly deadheading spent blooms helps to prevent the plants from spreading around the garden.
These attractive blooms thrive and spread with minimal care.
Despite their delicate appearance the blue bell flower is a resilient plant. In a favorable position it rarely succumbs to pests or disease. However, even the healthiest plant can succumb to pests such as thrips, whiteflies or leafminers. A healthy plant is able to resist most small infestations. If the infestation is problematic or persistent, an application of homemade insecticidal soap can be applied.
If allowed to, these attractive plants can easily spread around the garden. The easiest way to curtail this spread is to deadhead spent blooms and regularly lift and divide the bulbs. Dividing bulbs also helps to rejuvenate their growth habit, keeping them healthy and productive. Regularly lifting and dividing bulbs also prevents areas of soil from becoming overcrowded.
Like other spring flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, the best time to dig them up is in late summer. You can also lift the bulbs in early fall, once all the foliage has died away but before the first frosts of the year. Use a trowel to carefully dig up the bulbs. Discarded any bulbs that are soft, deformed or are showing any signs of disease. Replant the healthy bulbs in your garden or pass them onto friends and family.
Colorful and elegant, the blue bell flower is an attractive addition to any spring garden.