Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles

If asked to name a flower that captures the fleeting spring spirit of April, it would be the Bluebell I would think of first.

Many people would be able to instantly recognise a bluebell, with its distinctive stem of bell-shaped drooping flowers, creating swathes of colour in spring woodlands. The flower has been known however, by lots of other names – have you heard of the wood bell? How about bell bottle? Theres also wild hyacinth, Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles! As with many of our native wildflowers, the long association people have had with bluebells has lead to the being featured in folklore and superstition. One such tale is that if you hear bluebells ‘ringing’ that means fairies are nearby… or imminent death! Others say that the wearer of a garland of bluebells will be compelled to tell the truth (but it might not be worth angering the fairies that are said to enchant bluebell woods!)

What you might not know about bluebells

  • It is illegal to intentionally dig up, pick, or otherwise destroy bluebells growing in the wild
  • A garden variety of bluebell, the related ‘Spanish Bluebell’ is thought to be threatening our native population, so if you plant bluebells make sure you choose Hyacinthoides non-scripta, not Hyacinthoides hispanica
  • Bluebells are a sign of old woodland, as colonies take a long time to establish and hate disturbance. A plant can take 5-7years from seed to flower.
  • Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK!
  • Occasionally individual bluebells can appear in white rather than the traditional blue!

The emergence of bluebells is one of the highlights of spring, eagerly awaited by anyone who enjoys floral displays and walking in the British countryside. Its timing is effected by weather and climate, and whereabouts you are in the country, but usually happens around mid April-early May. Although now we mainly appreciate bluebells for their beauty and as part of our precious biodiversity, historically bluebells had wide ranging uses. The gummy sap was used as glue for bookbinding and its toxic chemicals stopped certain insects from attacking the binding. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, there was a fashion for big ruff collars and these were regularly stiffened using a starch made from crushed bluebell bulbs. We were even using bluebells as far back as the bronze age, then the sticky sap helped glue feathers to arrows. There is the possibility that bluebells may be helpful to us again in the future, as scientists are investigating the potential for the toxic chemicals in the plants to be transformed into a treatment for cancer!

Something to remember

If you are visiting bluebell woods this spring, be careful to stick to the paths and not trample the plants. Bluebells are very easily damaged by footfall and take a long time to recover. Crushed leaves can’t perform photosynthesis, so cannot produce food to store in the bulb for next year’s growth and flowering. If you want to capture special photographs to remember your visit by, try taking shots from a low level, even laying on the ground if you are able – this will create a wonderful effect and catch that delicate haze of blue.

Lockdown Bluebells

If you can’t get out and about to see bluebells yourself this year, I found this wonderful film of a bluebell wood by the National Trust, which is perfect to immerse yourself in for a some much needed nature-therapy. (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/bluebell-woods-near-you)

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