Bluebells are synonymous with the season of Beltane in early May, which marks the beginning of the Summer months in the Celtic Wheel of the Year. The flowers are native to western Europe and can be found in ancient woodland and have been for thousands of years. They are unmistakable: bright, bell-shaped and a distinctive bluey-purple, they signify rare and special woodland. Bluebells are actually herbs, and each native “bell” has six flowers with curled tips that droop to one side of the stem. Their bulbs ever-present in ancient forests and are currently blooming in their droves – a little later than usual this year but worth the wait.
Destruction of habitat, illegal collection of wild bulbs, hybridisation with Spanish bluebells and even damage from trampling – meaning the leaves can no longer photosynthesise – mean that bluebells are under threat. The wildflowers are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), meaning landowners and visitors are banned from removing bluebells to sell. Be sure to tread carefully if you go to see the bluebells and stick to the marked pathways. Each year the Woodland Trust holds a “Big Bluebell Watch” to track the progress of the plant – and you can find out more about the top places to spot bluebells here.
Their magical appearance has seen bluebells long associated with fairies in folklore. There are many different stories involving dark fairy magic, as bluebell woods are supposedly enchanted by fairies – in many cases, rather sinisterly, to trap humans. One story goes that if you pick a bluebell, you will be led astray by fairies and wander lost for all time. Another even says that if you hear a bluebell ringing you will be visited by an evil fairy and will die soon afterwards.
Over the years, they’ve had many names as a result, from Crowtoes by the first British botanists, to Witches’ Thimbles, thanks to their associations with witches’ potions in folklore. You might also hear them referred to them rather descriptively as Wood Hyacinth or Lady’s Nightcap. To the Victorians, with their coded floriography, the bluebell was a symbol of gratitude and everlasting love in the language of flowers. It is also associated with the truth, some believing that if you wear a crown of bluebells you cannot tell lies. It is also symbol of constancy, with one story saying that if you turn a bluebell flower inside-out without breaking it, you will win your true love’s heart.
Bluebells have long been associated with Britishness, and have inspired artists in different ways. Nature poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described them as “like the heads of snakes”, while Oscar Wilde was more positive: “Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley”. Percy Bysshe Shelley lauded the “tender bluebell”. Emily and Anne Bronte were both inspired to write about the widlflowers. I leave you with the words of the latter, from her poem, ‘The Bluebell’.
“O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others weal
With anxious toil and strife.
Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.”
Have you visited your local bluebell woods this year?