Hyacinthoides non-scripta, our favourite spring flower? Well one of them anyway. Also known as Granfer Griggles, Cra’tae – i.e crow’s toes. What flower resembles crow’s toes? Does anyone know what crow’s toes look like? Well I’ll put you out of your misery, I talking about the humble bluebell, that glorious woodland flower which carpets the woodland floor in colour. Now’s the time to see and enjoy them. Bluebells grow throughout Britain from Cape Wrath to Land’s End and is now universally known as bluebell. Once it was confused with harebell and the name was used for both species, as John Clare did in his poem The Nightingale’s Nest. Bluebells are much less common on the continent and almost 50% of the world’s bluebells occur in the UK. They are superbly adapted to burst into leaf and flower on the deciduous woodland floor before other woodland plants have come into leaf to cover the ground, and in advance of the foliage overhead forming a dense canopy. It seems possible that the toxic acid litter of conifers may have a poisonous effect on bluebells because they rarely grow in such plantations. Now all references refer to bluebells as a woodland species and maybe that’s true, but you can see them so often in areas where trees no longer grow that I reckon maybe they aren’t as dependent on trees as we think. I realise that they may well outlive the trees that once grew over them and this might account for them growing in the open today.
Bluebells, like so many of our spring flowers, have a bulb and their rich nectar provides food for many butterflies and other insects. Bluebells contain toxic glycosides and humans can be poisoned if the bulbs are mistaken for spring onions and eaten. Cattle, horses and dogs have been reported to suffer digestive problems after eating bluebell leaves. Beware therefore if you pick wild garlic that you are getting the right leaf. You also may wish to know that the sap can cause contact dermatitis.
Probably because of the large world population of bluebells growing In the UK, Hyacinthoides non-scripta is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits landowners from removing bluebells from their land for sale, and prohibits anyone from digging up bulbs from the countryside. Its listing on Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998 made trade in wild bluebell bulbs or seeds an offence. Current threats to bluebells include the loss of ancient woodland habitat, the illegal collection of bulbs and cross-breeding with non-native bluebells. So how do we tell the difference between our native wild bluebell and the invasive Spanish bluebell? Hyacinthoides non-scripta grows with the stem slightly bent and the flowers on only one side. The Spanish bluebell grows more erect and with the flowers growing down more than one side of the stem. I wouldn’t suggest that you pull the Spanish variety up if you see them, so I haven’t (suggested it), but don’t plant them in your garden as they apparently hybridise easily with our native bluebells.
Bluebells have had a number of uses over the years. A glue obtained from bluebells was traditionally used as a means of sticking flights to arrow shafts and in book-binding. The bulb is reported to have diuretic and styptic properties. Starch derived from the bulb has been used in laundering.
Results from The Telegraph have shown that bluebells flower as much as two weeks earlier than they did 30 years ago and scientists believe that man-made climate change has accelerated this. It seems that spring is getting earlier and earlier. This makes it difficult to predict when the peak time for bluebells will be each year and also signals an important warning for their future. It appears that different plants respond to climate change at different rates and the warming climate enables other plants to make an earlier start as well. Although bluebells are appearing above ground earlier in the year, their emerging leaves are finding an increasingly crowded environment and one that is more heavily shaded by the tree canopy above. It is widely feared that our bluebells are suffering as a result. Is it just me, but I have long thought that whilst wild garlic and bluebells each had a distinct flowering period this seems to have become more clouded over the years and they can now be seen flowering together occasionally. What do you think? Phenology has a lot to teach us about the ways in which the natural world is responding as our climate warms, bringing changes which will in the longer term have profound impacts on human life too.
Now after hopefully whetting your appetite for bluebells you’ll want to see them. Well fortunately most deciduous woodlands in Nidderdale have bluebells growing there, some in large quantities, so you really can’t go wrong, but go see them and enjoy them but as with all wild flowers leave them for others to enjoy. Take pictures not plants. A really good place to see bluebells is Old Spring Wood, Summerbridge, where Rosemary Helme has done so much to eradicate the bracken and provide a better environment for the bluebells to grow in. Thanks Rosemary.
Flora Britannia – Richard Mabey
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
How Stean Blog April 2016