Quantock Hills Blog

For whom the bluebell tolls

- Bluebells are bursting into bloom, time to celebrate this beautiful wildflower

Katy Coate

Posted by Katy Coate on 24 April 2016

For whom the bluebell tolls Mention bluebells and even the hard hearted will go dewy-eyed. What is it about this whimsical wildflower that captures our imagination so?  Evocative of woodlands, hedges and shady places in the full bloom of spring, the bluebell ranks number one as the nation’s favourite wildflower, according to a survey by the charity Plantlife. And rightly so as the UK has the finest bluebell carpets in the world, 50% of the world’s bluebells can be found in the UK, which is a pretty staggering statistic if you think about it.

Often called ‘fairy flowers’ the bluebell is rich with folklore.  One who wears a wreath of bluebells is compelled to speak only the truth, manage to turn one of its flowers inside out and you will win the one you love.  But be warned; wander into a ring of bluebells and you will fall under a fairy enchantment and soon after die, and should you be so unfortunate as to hear a bluebell ring,  it’s the pearly gates for you. (Apparently bluebells will ring to collect fairies to a gathering - so you see, it wouldn’t do for humans to hear them!)


The poisonous nature of the bluebell bulb, is perhaps a reason for the more macabre of the fairytale endings, but the gummy sap from the bulbs has long been used as a starch substitute. From the bronze age, when it was used to set tail feathers to arrows, in Elizabethan times it provided starch for the ruffs of collars and sleeves, and has a long history of being used as the glue for bookbinding. (Its toxicity thought to be useful for stopping certain insects from attacking the binding.)


Bluebell flowers are rich in pollen and nectar, and whilst a vital food source for many springtime insects, they are thought to be chiefly pollinated by bumblebees.  Although the relationship may be in need of some help from Relate; bees are known to ‘steal’ nectar from bluebell flowers, by biting a hole in the bottom of the bell, and so reaching the nectar without pollinating the flower. Curiously, this is thought to be a ‘cultural’ phenomenon as some communities of bees do this, whilst some don’t.


Unfortunately it’s not just opportunist bees bluebells need to worry about, a far greater threat comes in the form of the non-native Hyacinthoides hispanica, similar to our native wildflower, the ‘spanish bluebell’  which has doubled in numbers over the last 15 years, and can now be found in one in six native bluebell woodlands. Plantlife say that the genes from these Spanish bluebells could dominate native plants and within 50 years we could lose all the special characteristics we love in our native plants.


The two species are easily distinguishable.  English bluebells have flowers arranged only on one side of their stem, giving them a characteristic droop, whilst the Spanish species have an upright appearance, with flowers all around the stem.  Inside the flower, the colour of the anthers also differ; Spanish anthers are blue, whilst English bluebells are cream coloured. English bluebells also have a more floral scent, whilst the Spanish variety are said to smell like ‘old onions’.


The English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta is a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.  It is a criminal offence to remove the bulbs of wild English bluebells and trade in the bulbs or seeds is punishable by fines up to £5000 per bulb.


The Quantock Hills are lucky enough to have some truly wonderful bluebell woods, this is due to the hills being protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where protecting ancient woodland is an important objective.  Bluebells and ancient woodland go hand in hand, partly it is thought because the bluebell spreads so slowly and can therefore be a good indicator for ancient woodland sites.  To experience the full glory of the bluebell carpets our favourite places to go are: Cothelstone Hill, Buncombe Wood, Broomfield Common, Fyne Court, Hestercombe Gardens and Aisholt Woods. But if you know of any other favourite bluebell haunts, please do let us know!

 

 

 


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