Bluebells in Spring

Bluebells (c) Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

There is nothing quite so magical as stepping into a wood in early May, and finding yourself in a sea of bluebells. Dr Cath explains more about their history, how to spot non-native bluebells and the best woods to visit in Shropshire for a colourful display.

The blue haze of bluebells almost floats, delicately scented, in the dappled light. Over half of the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, and they were voted the nation’s favourite wildflower in a Plantlife survey in 2015. 

The bluebell has many local names – a sure sign of its cultural significance. In different parts of the country it has been know as wood bell, cuckoo’s boots, lady’s nightcap, witches’ thimbles, cra’s taes (crows’ toes) and, more obscurely, Granfer Griggles.

The Latin name, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, replaced the more poetic Endymion non-scriptus in 1991, but both refer to those beautiful youths beloved in Greek mythology. In the Language of Flowers, bluebells symbolise everlasting love.

Bluebell wood

A carpet of bluebells (c) Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Although the plant is poisonous to humans, dogs, horses and cattle, they do have some practical uses apart from lifting the spirits and delighting the eye. The sticky sap of the bulbs was once used to glue the feathers (fletching) on arrows, and in Tudor times to stiffen the fashionable ruffs.

It’s recommended as an adhesive to repair fine paper such as is used for prayer books, and I have a notebook which had an emergency repair on Skomer (covered in bluebells!) in 1999 which is still in perfect shape. 

But despite their popularity, all is not well in the bluebell wood. 

The species is threatened not only by habitat destruction and illegal collection, but more insidiously by hybridisation with Spanish bluebells – a popular garden plant introduced in the late 17th century which really has no place in our native woodlands.

Spanish bluebells

Spanish bluebells (c) Richard Burkmar

Spanish bluebells have a more upright habit, with flowers all around the stem rather than the delicate, one-sided nodding flowers of the English bluebell. Spanish bluebells don’t spread easily by seed but the pollen is easily transferred by bees and the resulting seed is viable. Hybridisation dilutes the unique characteristics of the native bluebells, and permanently alters their genetics. 

Native bluebell

Native bluebell (c) Josh Raper / Conservation Media

So what can we do about it? Spanish bluebells aren’t a problem in town gardens, but if yours is close to woodland there is a risk of pollen transfer. I’m busy digging up all the Spanish bluebells in my garden before they flower, and will be planting natives under the trees, where they can naturalise. 

Until my own are flowering happily, I shall be out and about in Shropshire, enjoying the glories of our bluebell woods. Earl’s and Pontesford Hill, The Ercall, Bwyltai Wood and Price’s Dingle at Ifton Meadows are all good places to lose yourself in the sea of blue. Beware of the fairies though – folklore has it that if you hear a bluebell ring you will be visited by a bad fairy, and if you pick one, you will be led astray by fairies and wander lost forevermore!

(Please remember to view bluebells by sticking to paths, to avoid unnecessarily damaging these delicate flowers so everyone can enjoy them)

Dr Cath Price

Shropshire Wildlife Trust

Bluebells (c) Josh Raper / Conservation Media

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) (c) Guy Edwardes/2020VISION