Ring Out Those Bluebells

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Cotswold BluebellsIt will not be long before a familiar, breathless scent will assail anyone walking in British ancient woodland – that of the common bluebell, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which is native to the western parts of Atlantic Europe, from north-western Spain to the Netherlands and to Britain and Ireland. Notwithstanding its fairly wide distribution, it reaches its greatest densities in the British Isles, where "bluebell woods" (woodland with the undergrowth dominated by bluebells in spring) are a familiar sight and in fact the only part of these islands where bluebells are not found are the northern Outer Hebrides (Lewis and Harris), and Orkney and Shetland. It is estimated that between twenty five and fifty percent of the world's common bluebells are to be found here. They flower and leaf early before the woodland canopy closes in late spring and may also be found growing under bracken. Adapted to woodlands, the shoots are able to penetrate through a thick layer of leaf litter, and are used as an indicator for the identification of ancient woodland. Rich in pollen and nectar, they are chiefly pollinated by bumblebees. These pretty flowers have their practical uses - they synthesise a wide range of chemicals with potential medicinal properties, and extracts – water-soluble alkaloids – are similar to compounds tested for use in combating serious conditions like cancer; and the sap can be used as an adhesive. It is not only the perfume of the bluebell that is so striking – even more striking is their carpet-like density, which produces a sensation of colour that is indescribably arresting. In fact the colour is (for this amateur, at least) almost unphotographable, in the sense that the average picture nearly always fails to capture the intensity and tones of the blue haze in a glade filled with these invigoratingly cheerful flowers. We have our share of bluebell woods in the Cotswolds – Lineover, for example – where bluebell fragrance competes with the pungent odour of wild garlic.

'There is a silent eloquence In every wild bluebell That fills my softened heart with bliss That words could never tell'

Ann Bronte

NewsKatharine Mabbett