On native and non-native bluebells

by Barendina Smedley

Earlier this week, I did something very stupid, if very human, which I now regret. I posted a photo of some flowers on Twitter.

They were blue, pink and white flowers, growing up a bank, interspersed with cow parsley. The reason I shot the photo, and later posted it, is that I thought the flowers were rather good. They are, in effect, the view from our west-facing bathroom window right now, following on from earlier snowdrops and aconite. The bank, under an old beech tree, tends to be dark. Framed against its grave shade, the flowers looked delicate, cheerful, happy. Surely no one could object to a photo of happy flowers?

Not for the first time, however, I had underestimated Twitter. Within 48 hours, someone I don’t even know — a follower of a follower — launched an attack. How dare I post a photo of non-native bluebells?

For such the flowers were, and indeed are. Well, I knew that our blue, pink and white flowers were Spanish bluebells, not native ones. I’d never claimed anything to the contrary. Soon, however, I was being furnished with links to websites — there are plenty of them out there — decrying Spanish bluebells. Apparently Spanish bluebells, characterised as ‘coarse’ and ‘scentless’, come over here, pollinating our innocent native Hyacinthoides non-scripta, crowding our bluebell woods with horrid half-caste bluebells. Send them home!

Leave aside the question — probably unanswerable — as to why I or anyone else should care what some follower-of-a-follower thinks about my bluebells. Let’s consider native and non-native plants instead, and what we ought to think of them.

When we bought our Norfolk house in 2011, and a small adjoining property (previously associated with the main house) more recently, the garden was one of the main attractions. Like the house, it has a history. There is a ‘terraced garden’ (that big bank, in fact) surviving from c. 1750, and a few William Robinson-esque rockeries presumably c. 1900. Photos from the 1940s, coupled with anecdotal accounts of the number of gardeners employed by the owner at that time, imply a thriving, well-kept, handsome mid-century garden. From the mid-1960s onwards, however, everything went downhill. At first we assumed that the garden we met in 2010 had what might be called ‘good bones’ — old trees, large shrubs, a broadly sensible layout — but, apparently, very little else besides.

This wasn’t, as it turned out, entirely accurate. For one thing, the property developer who had owned the house immediately before we did was a great devotee at the altar of Roundup. Once the toxic spraying stopped, as it did the moment we arrived, it was amazing to watch what sprang back to life. There were ‘weeds’, of course — let’s skate, for the moment at least, over the subjectivity bound up in that heavily-freighted little word — but also poppies, fuschia, day lilies, aconite, two types of cyclamen. And there were bluebells, too — Spanish bluebells.

For those Spanish bluebells were nothing to do with me. I did not plant them. For heaven’s sake, if I’d have been planting, I’d have planted native bluebells, if only because like everyone else who has gardened here, I am a creature of my time and place, and we live in a time and place that embraces native bluebells.

For the record, we did quite a lot of planting when we first arrived, for all the usual reasons — to resolve aimless sight-lines, to ensure privacy, to repair damage done by recent neglect or ignorance. And when we planted, we invariably used native shrubs and trees. For one thing, we wanted our offerings to be of some benefit to the local wildlife, as well as to our human friends, and this is a safer bet with entirely native planting. But we also wanted what we planted to fit in. Just as using the ‘wrong’ brick or architectural detail makes a house stand out from its environment, often not in a good way — just look at some of the terrible toffee-coloured brick, dodgy mansard roofs and out-of-scale fenestration used in our own Norfolk village — the ‘wrong’ planting can jar too. Hence our emphatic and modish allegiance to hazel, spindle, box, holly, bird-cherry. On the odd occasions when our planting went off-piste, we indulged in nothing more exotic than the odd — or, to be more accurate, entirely mainstream — viburnum, or a couple of nineteenth-century varieties of lilac.

Admittedly, when it came to herbaceous plants, we ventured slightly further afield — although not in every case. The meadow, obviously, has received regular offerings of Emorsgate meadow mix for lime and chalk soils, as have the two newly-constructed chalk banks. I wonder what my site supervisor, once an arable farmer and a very practical man, would say to me, were he to discover how much I spend yearly on re-introducing precisely the annoying, unprofitable weeds he and his forefathers laboured for so many centuries to eradicate?

But when it comes to the garden, as noted, I have to confess to planting quite a few non-native plants. These include verbena, spurges, hostas, hellebores, pansies, wallflowers, stock, snapdragons, pinks, crocus, narcissus, snowdrops, tulips, lilies, and as many old roses as circumstances, budgets and domestic harmony will allow. Meanwhile in the vegetable patch we have the usual heritage potatoes, cucumbers, kale, onions and garlic, as well as herbs such as rosemary, sage, coriander, parsley and hyssop.

Nor have I grubbed up the non-native species planted here by previous generations of gardeners — the poppies, fuschia, day lilies, aconite, cyclamen and, yes, Spanish bluebells mentioned above. As far as that goes, one of the most tiresome invasive weeds we have in Blakeney is alexanders — apparently brought to Britain by the Romans as a sort of forerunner to celery. Like rabbits, pheasants, wheat and barley, alexanders are non-native. They are also everywhere in north Norfolk.

None of the plants listed above is a native English species, at least not in the forms I have planted. Yet at the same time, they are part and parcel of what most of us would understand as an English Garden.

And this, ultimately, is why that attack on the Spanish bluebells seems so odd to me.

On one hand, I understand entirely the point about non-native species hybridising with native species, hence undermining a degree of biodiversity any sane human ought to cherish, for purely practical, if not aesthetic or even spiritual reasons. Jut as domestic cats are perhaps the greatest enemy of Britain’s native wildcat, due to a marked lack of fussiness when it comes to making kittens, Spanish bluebells do, manifestly, present a threat to native bluebells. In fact, having said that the bluebells in my garden are Spanish bluebells — Hyacinthoides hispanica — closer inspection reveals that at least some of our Spanish bluebells have evidently crossed with H. non-scripta, thus producing an intermediate termed H. massartiana. I think this must be the case in many gardens, particularly old ones. This is perhaps a pity, although it would matter rather more if there wasn’t a national collection of bluebells to deal with precisely this issue.

Yet on the other hand, gardens are, by definition, unnatural enterprises. Through a happy coincidence, the day on which I experienced the unwanted bluebell attack also brought, via the post, a copy of Penelope Hobhouse’s Plants in Garden History (1992). This extraordinary volume, combining as it does a wealth of archival research with decades of hands-on gardening experience, might as well be subtitled ‘a history of moving plants far beyond their native range, cross-breeding them with other plants and otherwise doing unnatural things with them’, because that is pretty much what has happened to plants during their sojourn in man-made gardens. Intentionally or otherwise, as soon as humans started to move from place to place, they brought their plants with them, and in doing so, altered the world in which they found themselves — as they would have done in any case, humans also being non-native in Britain. A preference for native bluebells is just as arbitrary as a preference for non-native ones. Action to preserve native species against intruders is, ultimately, an ‘unnatural’ intervention in a very natural process of migration, hybridisation and evolution.

This is the problem I have with books like George Monbiot’s Feral. I understand the romantic impulse behind that whole project, the driver of Monbiot’s surging prose. What puzzles me slightly is the apparently total lack of self-consciousness regarding that romanticism. ‘Reinstating’ a wilderness is not a natural process. Rather, it’s exactly the same human impulse to make existing things the way we want them to be, different than they are at present, that has motivated gardeners even since someone in the near East a few tens of thousands of years ago decided to try to grow a date palm where no date palm grew before. Or to put it another way, it’s the same impulse that leads person to christen some little yellow flower a weed, while his friend sends off for yet another expensive bag of little yellow flower seed. It’s the same impulse that created the formal terrace garden behind our house in the 1750s, but also the impulse that heaped up the stone to make all those little rockeries c. 1900. It is, in short, just another style of gardening, with a different set of snobberies underpinning it.

This isn’t to say that any of these approaches is wrong, by the way. Rather, it’s admitting that genuine wilderness is the one thing we cannot set out to create — and that a preference for wilderness is a matter of taste, not objective superiority. Wilderness is, as it were, at best a half-remembered Eden, the gates of which have long been barred to us. Who can be surprised that we differ in our attempts, inevitably futile, to find a way back in? Also, I am sure the urge to improve on nature is as natural as human impulses come. To that extent, anyway, we are nature, not something outside it. Why the need to be pompous about different attempts at ‘improvement’?

For a few days after the bluebell attack, I wondered whether that stranger’s tweets would make me hate my mongrel half-breed bluebells, or at least think them somehow less happy, less beautiful. In the end, however, I think I now love them even more. They are non-native, yes — but so are lots of other people and things I care about. What’s more, they are part of the actual narrative of the land on which I live — their introduction, their growth and haphazard propagation, and now this stupid, revealing argument over them — and as such are a real thing, a genuine thing, in all their robustly non-native glory, speaking at once, rather paradoxically, of continuity and change, the world that is as well as the world that might be. And no, whatever Twitter might throw at them or me, I would not wish them otherwise.