Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, my first memory of bluebells involves a family outing to Epping Forest when I was six years old. We travelled in our Ford Popular (named Thunderball), an eccentric vehicle that had problems with hills and would grind its way to the top of an incline accompanied by shouts of ‘come on Thunderball!’ from my brother and I in the back.
When we arrived, we stepped into a wonderland – the bluebells were at their peak and the whole of the forest floor shimmered with a blue so deep it was almost ultra-violet. I seem to remember that my Mum had brought a shopping bag, and we dug up a single clump (a transgression that was not illegal in 1966). When we got home, Mum split them up and planted them in our pocket-handkerchief-sized garden, where they flourished to such an extent that they positively took over. Who could have guessed that, only forty-five years later, bluebell woods would have vanished in many places, victims of development and climate change, and have been ‘corrupted’ by hybridization in others.
At the weekend, I had a chance to compare two distinct bluebell populations. One is in Somerset, in an isolated patch of woodland between fields, where the bluebells are all unashamedly of the native species. The second is in our local North London wood and cemetery, where there is a much greater diversity of plants.
The classic way of telling the difference between native bluebells, Spanish ones and hybrids is to turn the little bell of the flower until you can see the pollen. In native plants, the pollen is snowy-white. In Spanish bluebells and hybrids, there is a hint of greenish-blue to the pollen. There are other differences, however. British bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are typically a darker blue than their Spanish counterparts (Hyacinthoides hispanica). The flowers of our native bluebell nod, and grow along one side of the stem, while the Spanish flowers are much more upright, and grow on all sides of the stem. Furthermore, the petals of the British bluebell are strongly curved back (recurved) at the end of the ‘bell’. The British bluebell also has a much stronger, sweeter smell than its Spanish relative. So, telling the difference between a pure British bluebell and a pure Spanish one is relatively simple. The problem comes with hybrids (Hyacinthoides x massartiana) , which form a whole spectrum of variation between the two parent species. And this may not be such a bad thing. When I was on a Spring Flower walk at the Natural History Museum, the guide told us that the Spanish bluebell is much more resistant to drought than the British variety so it may be that, as the climate changes, the native bluebell will move north, and the Spanish/hybrid varieties will thrive in drier areas. As he put it ‘Spanish bluebells are better than no bluebells, surely’.
Bluebells have very special bulbs – they have contractile roots, which, as they contract, draw the bulb into deeper, moister soil. This may be why bluebells don’t flourish on the thin chalkland soils of some parts of the south of England. It may also explain why the bulbs often do badly in gardens, as many people who have tried this method of propagation will tell you. As my mother instinctively knew, bluebells really need to be planted ‘in the green’. I wonder if a tiny relict population of Epping Forest bluebells is still growing in a back yard in Stratford, East London? It would be lovely to think that this is a possibility, though I fear that they vanished under a patio long ago.
Probably half of all the bluebells in the world grow in the British Isles, where they are typically a plant of damp, humus-rich woodland and are an indicator species of ancient woodland. They can also thrive in hedge-bank and pasture, although large numbers of the plant may indicate that a wood used to stand there that has long been cut down. They cannot live in the acid soil of conifer plantations. Bluebells are largely pollinated by bumblebees, who are often on the wing early, when the plant is flowering. A bluebell wood is a wonder to behold, and, since 1981, the plant has been protected from marauders like my mum by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which can impose a fine of up to £5000 a bulb if someone tries to trade in the plant.However, Richard Mabey believes that such is the value of bluebells for folk (like me) who are trying to establish ‘wild’ gardens that whole woods may be stripped. Ironically, ‘bluebell rustling’ is apparently most common in East Anglia, where the plant is rarest.
The bluebell is such a popular flower that, when the charity Plantlife was looking for ‘Britain’s Favourite Flower’ the bluebell was left off the list because it had already won a previous poll.
Why, I wondered, was the bluebell known as Hyacinthoides ‘non-scripta’? Richard Mabey comes to the rescue in Flora Britannica, as usual. Non-scripta, meaning ‘unlettered’, is to distinguish the bluebell from the hyacinth, which is said to have the letters ‘AIAI’ inscribed upon its leaves. AIAI means ‘alas’, and was said to have been caused by Apollo lamenting the death of prince Hyacinthus, for whom the hyacinth is named. Now, I just have to check out a wild hyacinth to see if it is ‘lettered’.
The sap from bluebells was used as a kind of glue to secure arrow feathers in the middle ages, and was also used to starch the ruffs of Elizabethan gentlemen, and as a bookbinders’ glue. It was once believed that a distillation of bluebells would prevent the voices of choirboys from breaking. In Plant Lives, Sue Eland recounts several ominous legends about bluebells. A child who goes into the woods to pick bluebells is likely to disappear, whereas an adult will merely suffer the indignity of being led about by a pixie until rescued.
The plant is said to be efficacious against snake-bite (at least, according to Tennyson), and its one major medicinal use is to combat leucorrheoa (which I had to look up, only to discover that it’s vaginal discharge. You’re welcome.)
As beautiful as a bluebell wood is, I didn’t manage to get a photograph that truly reflects the colour of the one in Somerset, or its shimmering, water-like quality. The photo below captures some of this, but maybe Gerard Manley Hopkins summed it up best in his lines in ‘May Magnificat’, where he calls the bluebell the ‘greybell:
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
There is something about bluebells that makes me nostalgic. I remember the heady days of childhood, and the overwhelming sense of the abundance of the natural world from those expeditions to the woods. I hope that there will still be bluebell woods for our children to enjoy, and much of that depends on the woods themselves being protected. I would draw your attention to the 63 Ancient Woodlands that are threatened by the HS2 rail line, for example. It seems that we need to be ever vigilant to protect our local habitats, be they bogs or beaches, sand dunes or heathlands. Once they are gone, it will take generations for them to achieve the same biodiversity that they currently have, and whatever ‘reparation’ is offered cannot replace what we have now. Local opposition does make a difference, so let’s keep our eyes and ears open to what’s being planned for our beloved places. You will be surprised how many other people care about them, and how powerful we can be if we work together.
Photo One – By Marion Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13376247
Photo Two – By Charles01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7338999
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer