Monthly Archives: April 2016

Wednesday Weed – Bluebell

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…..

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

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.

By Charles01 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Ford Popular, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never encountered one (Photo Two – see below for credit)

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.

IMG_5843At 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.

White pollen

White pollen in a classical British Bluebell

Bluish-green pollen in what is probably a hybrid

Bluish-green pollen in what is probably a hybrid, plus note the lighter lilac-blue colour and the more ‘upright’ habit


Note the very deep-blue colour of these native bluebells , and the ‘nodding’ habit of the flowers

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’.

IMG_5875Bluebells 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.

IMG_5837Probably 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.

Hybrid bluebells, along with some white ones, from the cemetery. I will see if I can find you some pink ones too...

Hybrid bluebells, along with some white ones, from the cemetery (though note that native bluebells can also be seen in a wide variety of colours). I will see if I can find you some pink ones too…

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’.

IMG_5844The 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.)

IMG_5890As 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

By Marion Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A bluebell wood near Lampeter in Wales (Photo One – see credit below)

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 Credits

Photo One – By Marion Phillips, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Two – By Charles01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer





Bugwoman on Location – A Spring Walk in a Dorset Lane


Blackbird nesting in an old farm building

Dear Readers, last week I was ‘on location’ in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, spending a week with Mum and Dad. They are both doing very nicely at the moment, and Mum asked me to relay a message of thanks to you all, for your messages of goodwill when she was so ill at Christmas, and also for keeping my spirits up (which indeed you did). So, I add my thanks to hers. If any blog has a kinder or more generous readership than mine I would be amazed.

I decided to take an hour out from making pancakes and soup (not simultaneously, I hasten to add) and went for a walk along Cole’s Lane, which winds up through some new-build cottages and farm buildings and into the fields.  Last time I was here, the House Martins were massing on the roof prior to flying south, and as yet it’s too early for their return. But the bushes are alive with birdsong. Robins are singing  from the laburnums and elders, their little round bodies puffed up with passion. The woodpigeons are singing their soft, crooning verses, and some starlings are ticking and whistling in an old beech tree. The pulse of life has picked up, and the leaves are just coming through, as green and toothsome as baby salad.

The path passes by the cottage where my brother used to live, and then a modern single storey building that looks as if it might have occasional use as a conference centre or meeting place. As usual in the village, there are signs asking people to pick up their dog poo. I don’t know who the anti-social culprits are, but allowing your dog to do its business and not picking it up is number one concern around these parts. Another sign, by the hedgerow on the opposite side of the road, begs people not to pick the daffodils. And there are lots of daffodils, for sure.

IMG_5754Some are the plain golden trumpets that you can buy a bunch of in Sainsburys for a pound. Some are more like the wild flowers, the petals paler than the centre. Some are the colour of plaster and apricots. Pale cream primroses peek out every so often, and in the shadier places there is the liquid sun of lesser celadine, those little golden star-shaped flowers peeking out from amongst the dark-green heart-shaped leaves. In one spot, a little thicket of snowdrops is hanging on, each porcelain flower marked with a green kiss. In short, spring is pouring forth in abundance, and I half expect to see an Easter Bunny.

Then,  something moves by the stone steps leading up to a farm shed. My first thought is ‘rat’! And then I see a white bobbing tail as a tiny rabbit jumps back into the darkness of the open doorway. So, I did see an Easter Bunny!

Spot the ears!

Spot the ears!

I stride on womanfully uphill, and see a dunnock displaying in an hawthorn, raising his wings to display his armpits to a robin, who is unimpressed. I learned recently that the testicles of small birds, like sparrows and dunnocks, increase in size tenfold in the spring. Of course, the testicles are carried inside the birds so we can’t see them, but just imagine the impact of all of that testosterone on such a tiny bird! No wonder they are impetuous and bold. The dunnock, normally a mousey little bird, takes to singing its sweet, thin song from the top of any available bush, regardless of the danger. We have already mentioned the robin. And the wrens are exploding into song all along the hedgerow, so that as I leave each territory and enter the next it’s a constant corridor of sound.

A surprisingly bold dunnock

A surprisingly bold dunnock

The hedgerows themselves are worthy of mention. In some places, the road has been worn away so that it is a good two metres below where the hedge is. I bump into a well-equipped elderly man who is off for a hike – he has walking boots, two sticks,, a rucksack and a GPS. We talk about the hedges, and he agrees that some of them have probably been here since the Domesday Book, marking the edges of people’s land and stopping the wanderings of cattle and sheep. The individual plants might have withered and died, but each would have been replaced as it failed. And what a mixture of plants – hawthorn and yew, hazel and beech, blackthorn and plum, and some newcomers – berberis and mahonia and pyracantha. Each hedge is both a source of food and a shelter, for many little birds like to nest in the thick cover that a decent hedge provides.

Some lichen in one of the older hedgerows.

Some lichen in one of the older hedgerows.

I walk further up the path, passing an old barn (full of rolls of straw and bags of urea pellets),

IMG_5774and, as I come up to some puddles in the road where a tractor has created a convenient pool in the mud, I see a small bird with a blazing golden head. A yellowhammer, a typical bird of farmland and hedgerow. Once these were as common as sparrows, but I don’t remember the last time that I saw one. Their call, often rendered as ‘a little bit of bread and NO cheese’, was echoing around the copse. I looked up and down and roundabout to see if I could get a picture, but the yellowhammer is one of those birds that you see, briefly, flying away from you and into cover. As indeed I saw another twice before I gave up my photographic ambitions, and decided to just enjoy the walk.

By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Yellowhammer - Rutland Water) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A yellowhammer. Not the one I saw, but a yellowhammer nonetheless (Photo One – credit below)

I followed a pair of birds along a little side-lane, as they bobbed about just in front of me, occasionally landing on the fence. They looked very finch-like, but I was sure they weren’t chaffinches. And, finally, when I got a good look I recognised them. They were linnets, the sweet singing birds of many a Victorian ditty, and I had never seen one before. They are the colour of dried thistles and stubble and autumn leaves.

Linnets! (Falls over in a swoon)

Linnets! (Falls over in a swoon)

IMG_5772Though by now, it was starting to cloud over, and I had more pancakes to make (yes, I know Shrove Tuesday was weeks ago but pancakes do contain eggs, which makes them Easter fodder as well).


Aye, the weather’s on the turn….

And so, I retraced my steps, saying hello to the bold dunnock, the singing wrens and the feisty robins as I went. Spring is so full of new hope that it’s difficult not to get caught up in the spirit of the time.


Photo One – By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Yellowhammer – Rutland Water) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer