Spring has sprung. Beneath the emerging lime green leaves of the beech, the woodland floor is carpeted in the drooping, enveloping cloaks of bluebells.
The flowers are more than woodland window-dressing, they tell a story. They speak of the history of the landscape, the tale of our past and beliefs. It is possible that glue synthesised from the bulbs of the plant fixed fletchings to arrows that flew at Agincourt and that the starchy substances extracted from them was stiffening the collar of Elizabeth the first in the Armada portrait.
As an ancient woodland indicator, it is likely that many of the colonies of bluebell we see have been developing in the understorey since the Armada portrait was put to canvas, ancient woodlands representing by definition a minimum of 400 years of continuous woodland cover.
Being so familiar to our ancestors means the plant has attracted a great deal of folklore, the most commonly referenced being the association of the bells with the faerie folk. Bluebell woods were said to be haunts of the faeries, where picking the flowers alone, becoming trapped in an encircling ring of the flowers and many other careless measures could result in a person being stolen or enslaved by these malicious spirits of nature.
With this in mind, the flowers should be treated with respect, not only to avoid catching the unwelcome attentions of those otherworldy beings, but more tangibly because the plants do not respond well to trampling. Damage to the leaves rapidly reduces the ability of the plant to photosynthesise, in some cases leading to long term damage of the colony. Because of this, bluebells are protected by law, so are best enjoyed from established pathways. In any case, the full spectacle of the blue carpet is best observed from the edge.
Bluebell is one of the major players in the community of early woodland flowers, those species providing a lifeline to woodland insects. At this time of year, many bumblebees are in a critical stage of their colony development, with the first workers foraying out to allow the queen to concentrate on growing her brood. Overwintering butterflies such as peacock, comma and brimstone will be grateful for the extra boost, as will those species such as orange tip and holly blue which are emerging as adults in the spring. Many hoverflies and moths will also be feeding on the bells, supporting them in their vital pollinating work elsewhere.
There is however an insidious threat to our wild bluebells in the form of a garden escape, the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). These plants are easier to grow than the wild bluebell, making them popular with gardeners who want that bluebell wood feeling at home. Unfortunately, the Spanish bluebell can hybridise with the native plant, creating a genetic muddle of a plant no longer co-evolved with our native insect species. These garden plants can readily escape and do damage to wild populations.
So how do you tell the difference? There are many ways to tell, not least the fact that the Spanish bluebell is a much larger, thicker set plant in general. The hybrids however, can be trickier to spot. A relatively effective (though not totally foolproof) checklist is to check three features of the flowers. In wild bluebells, the flowers tend to grow all on one side of a drooping stem, tending to be on the underside of the arc. The tips of their petals curl up on themselves, spiraling back along the main part of the flower. Checking inside the flower, you should see white pollen dusting the stamens within. In Spanish bluebell, the flowers grow all the way round the stem, which is much more upright. The petals do not curl back, forming a more classic bell shape, and the pollen is usually a blue colour. Hybrid plants tend to show a mixture of features from both parents. For example, a bluebell which looks wild but has blue pollen is a hybrid.
It goes without saying that for the benefit of the bluebell and its associated insects, Spanish bluebell should be avoided in garden plantings. It means a trip to the woods is in order to see the flowering show, but this is where bluebells are meant to be seen, coating an understorey shaded by trees for centuries. Just look out for the faeries when you visit...