8 May 2010


Among the many sights and sounds to be treasured from this evening’s walk through the woods and fields is one which never fails to come each spring, yet never fails to surprise.

Each day now the twilight lasts longer and longer, and once the sun had set the thrushes continued singing almost until darkness. A cuckoo was calling very late, and after nine o’clock I passed through the northern end of Harrock’s Wood, where, under the hazels, a seemingly solid yet insubstantial mass of bluebells stretched into the wood for as far as the eye could see, the colour deepening and becoming more mysterious with the dusk.

For those plants which grow in the woodland understorey, the single most important factor is the amount of light available, and most of them, the bluebell included, must get their flowering finished before the full canopy of leaves is out.

In the first half of May the leaves of the dominant woodland trees begin to emerge from the bud-cases in which they have passed the winter. At first the leaves are pale-green, soft, and almost translucent, but they quickly harden as the chloroplasts – the chlorophyll-containing bodies – are brought into use, and within a week or two the tree is a fully functional factory, running on sunlight and producing sugars and oxygen.

The bluebell is tolerant of shade, but does not need it and grows well in full light. The reason it is primarily a woodland flower probably has something to do with the greater humidity to be found inside a wood: bluebells have exacting requirements for moisture, and the soil must be neither too damp nor too dry. They also like ground, such as that in a wood, which remains undisturbed for many years, and the best displays are always found in old-established woodland.

With its blade-shaped leaves and long hollow stalk or scape, the bluebell is a typical member of the lily family – which also contains such oddities as the asparagus, tulip, onion, and garlic. The flowers are bluish-violet because that colour appears most prominent to the ultraviolet-sensitive eyes of the insects which pollinate them, and are carried, up to sixteen at a time, in gracefully drooping, one-sided racemes. The anthers are creamy white, unlike the blue anthers of the garden or Spanish bluebell, Endymion hispanicus.

The wild bluebell is rather puzzlingly called Endymion non-scriptus, or “not written-on”. Gerard, the herbalist, in 1597 described the “Blew English Hare-bels, or English Jacint”, jacint being another spelling of “hyacinth”. Among the ancients, jacint or jacinth was a rare gem of blue colour, probably sapphire. Then, recounted by the poet Ovid, there is the legend of Hyacinthus, a youth “beloved of Apollo”, as the phrase discreetly puts it. Hyacinthus was accidentally killed by Apollo (another version blames Zephyrus, the West-wind), and on the spot where he died a flower sprang up – the lily or hyacinth. On the petals Apollo inscribed the letters AIAI (the Greek word for “alas!”), which can indeed be seen on certain sorts of lily to this day.

The early herbalists tried to describe everything in terms of classical learning. The bluebell was plainly a hyacinth of some sort, and was originally placed in the genus Hyacinthus, but the word AIAI was not to be found on its petals – hence it was non-scriptus.

William Turner, in the third part of his Herbal, published in 1568, recommends the bluebell as a remedy against spider-bite, an idea pinched from the Greek writer Dioscorides, who was anyway describing another sort of hyacinth. Turner also says that the boys in his district “scrape the roote of the herbe and glew theyr arrowes and bokes wyth that slyme that they scrape of”, and indeed the slimy sap of the bluebell can be boiled down to make a strong and practical glue.

This sap covers the fingers of those who indulge in the mindless and illegal habit of bluebell-picking. The peculiar noise and feel of the stems when they are broken has given rise to one of the bluebell’s most vivid vernacular names, “snapgrass”. The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in his journal: “The stalks rub and click ... making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against”, which is as apt a way to put it as can be imagined.

He also describes the bluebells making “falls of sky-colour”; bluebells are seen at their best where they grow in sheets and clumps and spread a broad carpet of blue. As soon as they are picked, within minutes, they begin to droop, and in a vase or jamjar at home they look completely miserable and out-of-place. It is much better to leave them for others to admire.

If the truth be told, picking the flowers does less harm than treading on the leaves, which are fleshy and easily damaged. The bluebell spends the dark summer under the trees in renewing the food reserves held in its bulb, and if the leaves are squashed the whole plant will become sickly or die.

Private, relatively untrodden woodland, like Harrock’s Wood, is the place to see bluebells in the mass; but even in overused woods, litter-strewn hedgerows and spindly copses, bluebells in healthy groups are still a frequent sight. Perhaps they are more resilient than they look.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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