Notes for the Season

Spring 2023

The Bluebell

Written by Andy Bernhardt

13 April 2023

“Deeply embedded in our country’s natural history, we are very lucky to have them; almost half of the world’s bluebells live here…”

The folk names for this much anticipated flower: Witches’ Thimbles, Lady’s Nightcap, Crow’s Toes and, my own favourite, Cuckoo’s Boots, give some indication of its being deeply embedded in our country’s natural history. We are very lucky to have them; almost half of the world’s bluebells live here.

Valued as one of a few species categorised as an Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI) the presence of bluebells in a wood indicates that they and the wood will most likely have been there since at least 1600. They have a particular affinity with their big buddies, oak trees, curiously intertwining their subterranean lives… but more of that later…

‘Natural navigators’ among us know that these flowers are generally southern pointing and extremely particular as to where they grow. Needing both sun and shade, they tend to grow near the edges of woods before the first flush of leafgrowth shades them out. Oaks being late into leaf provide ideal cover.

At their most abundant, when carpeting woodlands, bluebells create a misperception of dominance and strength. In fact, they are quite delicate and hypersensitive to trampling so are always best looked at as opposed to walking over; also it’spointless to pick them, they will die before you get home. An old folk legend has it that if you walk across a patch of bluebells you will be strangled in your sleep by a crazed weasel. This may not be actually true but it’s worth remembering.

What strength they have is all below ground where they become ruthless. Their abundance is no accident; they know what they’re doing. Underground they wage a vital strategic war of cooperation and competition. Those tranquil, shimmering carpets of bluebells are busy conducting subterranean business deals, often with oaks, cooperating with mycorrhiza (vast underground fungi networks) trading nutrients for vital phosphorus, enriching themselves while restrictingits supply to rival plants.

Mafia monopoly or hippie co-op?

Either way it works and creates welcome and timely, seasonal beauty.

Their demure beauty is matched by their sharp survival instincts. Each season when their work is done, they die back and bury their bulbs just a little deeper to protect them from frost.

Trivia fact: should the ruff on your Elizabethan blouse need stiffening, you could always boil up starchy bluebell bulbs. But don’t though. It’s not just that bluebells are legally protected* so you might be liable to beheading or something, but they do look so much better as bluebells. Fashion is fickle, be patient; if you wait long enough your floppy ruff will surely become the next thing.

*In fact the fine for picking just one bluebell bulb is up to £5000! 
(The National Trust obviously think this is something to cry about, spot the typo on their warning sign below!).

And as for legal protection nore generally…  The private land we should be allowed to walk on is also ‘legally protected’. See article: Forgive Us Our Trespassing