Into the blue

As nature rolls out the blue carpet, Elly West looks at some of the most magical places to admire bluebells this spring – and all just a stone’s throw away from Bristol

There’s something magical about bluebells en-masse, carpeting the dappled shade of deciduous woodland and seeming to cast their own luminous glow, making it easy to understand their long association with enchantment and fairies. From mid-April and through May, woodland floors across the country are transformed into a delicate sea of blue, as one of the nation’s most loved and recognised wildflower comes into bloom.

Almost half of the world’s bluebells are estimated to grow here in the UK and they’re relatively rare elsewhere. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, digging up the bulbs or picking the flowers of our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, from the countryside is illegal, and can incur fines of up to £5,000 and a six-month prison sentence.

English bluebells are under threat from their invasive Spanish cousin, Hyacinthoides hispanica, which was introduced to the UK in the late 17th century, and became a popular garden plant from Victorian times onwards, being tougher and more vigorous than the native variety. Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the English bluebell, has stems that droop or nod to one side. The flowers are a darker blue and, like the stems, hang to the side, with petals that curl back at the edges. They have a fresh, sweet fragrance, unlike the Spanish variety, and are more attractive to early foraging bees. The leaves are narrower, up to 1.5cm wide.

Spanish bluebells, on the other hand, have stiff, upright stems with flowers hanging all around them and the petals flare rather than curl back. The leaves can be up to 3cm wide. However, because of cross-pollination and hybridisation, it can be difficult to tell the native and Spanish bluebells apart, as each takes on traits of the other. Pollen colour can be a giveaway, as our native bluebell has creamy-white pollen, while the hybrids or non-natives have green or blue pollen. Because of their vigour and ability to hybridise, it’s advised not to grow Spanish bluebells in rural locations, as escapees could potentially oust our natives, out-competing them for light and space, and eventually taking over.

In Victorian flower language, a bluebell symbolises constancy, humility and gratitude. The name is apt given the flowers’ colour and form, but other names in history include crowtoes, granfer griggles, cuckoo’s boots, wood hyacinth, fairy flower, bell bottle, lady’s nightcap and witches’ thimbles.

The Latin name, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, was given to the bluebell by Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist and so-called father of modern taxonomy. Hyacinthoides means ‘like a hyacinth’. In ancient Greek legend, Hyacinthus was a handsome and charming young man who attracted the attention of the god Apollo. One day, while teaching Hyacinthus how to throw the discus, Apollo accidentally hit Hyacinthus on the head, killing him. A hyacinth flower appeared where the blood of Hyacinthus hit the ground. Apollo’s tears fell on the flower, spelling out ‘AIAI’, meaning alas, on the petals. However, Linnaeus, when naming the bluebell, realised this must be a different plant to the one in the myth as there are no letter-like markings on its petals, so gave it the name ‘non-scripta’, meaning unlettered.

Bluebells in Bristol

There are plenty of places in and around Bristol where you can see carpets of bluebells this month, so why not choose a sunny day and head out into the woods? Be sure to stick to the pathways to avoid accidentally trampling on any plants.

Goblin Combe, Cleeve

Leigh Woods, Clifton

Prior’s Wood, Portbury

Ashton Court Estate, Long Ashton

Weston Big Wood, near Portishead

Lower Woods, near Wickwar

Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol BS4

Blaise Castle Estate, Bristol BS10

Snuff Mills, Stapleton

Stoke Park Estate, Stapleton

Bluebells have long featured in art and literature, inspiring poets and writers including Oscar Wilde, Emily and Anne Bronte, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as William Morris fabric designs. And they are also the subject of folklore, associated with ancient woodlands and magic, both good and bad. It’s said that bluebells ring to call fairies together, but the sound is deadly to humans, who will die if they hear it. It’s also said to be unlucky to trample on bluebells because you will annoy the fairies resting there (not to mention the potential prison sentence and fine of up to £5,000).

Notwithstanding the fact they are protected, it’s said that if you manage to turn a bluebell flower inside-out without tearing it, then apparently you shall win the one you love – but don’t try this with flowers growing wild. Likewise, a garland of bluebells around your neck ensures you tell the truth. Plant bluebells near your front door for good luck, because if someone unwanted comes, the flowers will ring to warn you (unlike the ones in the woods, which will might kill you if you hear them). All very confusing!

Other uses for bluebells have included the starch from the bulbs being used to stiffen the ruffs of Elizabethan collars, and gum from their roots was used historically to glue feathers to arrows, and in bookbinding. Although they don’t have much use in modern medicine, in the past, Tennyson wrote of bluebell juice being used to cure snake-bite, and extracts have also been used for their diuretic properties, and to stop bleeding.

Bluebells contain chemicals called glycosides and all parts are toxic. Eating any part can trigger nausea, vomiting, and a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. Some people can also get skin reactions from touching the plant, so if you are growing them at home, it’s best to wear gloves. Buy them as dry bulbs in autumn or plants ‘in the green’ (after flowering, still with leaves) in late spring, and choose a reputable source. As they are a woodland plant, they like partial shade and well-drained soil. Try planting them under a deciduous tree for a mini-woodland effect. Leave the foliage to die back naturally after flowering,
to feed the bulb for next year.