Wild Bluebells – The Sky Fallen to Earth
In Praise of the Wild Bluebell
by Barney Bardsley
It’s here at last. The long, hard winter is behind us. A bumper crop of doughty little snowdrops has given way to the gaudy crocus, standing in serried ranks of white, purple and yellow, all the way up to Roundhay Park. The first true, bright harbingers of spring.
As I write, the daffodils are just beginning to burst. Each wave of spring flowering all the more lovely, the more uplifting, for its perfect familiarity. Yellow is a predominant colour in these early blooms. A promise of sunshine (we hope) to follow. But there is a cooler, more precious shade that follows, as the season settles down and mellows into May. It is the province of perhaps the most exquisite of native woodland flowers: the wild bluebell. Hyacinthoides non-scripta.
If the daffodil tells us that the sun is coming back to the sky – then bluebells, in their thousands and millions, spreading across whole swathes of wild British woodland, go further still. Pronouncing boldly that that very sky – cloudless and blue, of course – has somehow fallen to earth. And even the sturdiest non-believer, walking in the middle of this abundance, must surely think that they are in heaven.
Bluebells are woodland opportunists. They use that window of advantage, when leaf mould from the bare trees above has turned rich and nourishing, and the branches have yet to block out the light with the thick canopy of summer green. When people in this country are asked their most loved month, the majority of them, apparently, say May.
“Links to myth and magic”
It is easy to see why. The birth pangs of the new spring – wild winds, icy showers – are generally over by now, and the weather has settled. There is the promise of warm days ahead – an expansion of the spirit as the light grows stronger – and, from time to time at least, a deep stillness, that falls on the earth before summer starts shouting its head off. The bluebell wood, on a gentle May morning, is a perfect symbol of this quiet pervasive poise. No wonder then, that many people report the bluebell to be their favourite flower – within their favourite month.
Perhaps more than any other flower, bluebells have strong links to the realm of myth and magic. If you kneel down and look carefully at one, it is easy to see why. Springing from a tight crop of glossy green leaf points, the flowers drop – like bells – from one side of an arching central stem, each little bloom a perfect blue, its tight, silky cap upturned at the edges: just made to frame a fairy’s face! But not all is as serene as this may suggest. It is taboo – and indeed illegal – to pick the wild bluebell. The fairies would cast fatal spells on those who did so, turning the flower into “Dead Men’s Bells” by their incantations. And science lurks within the fantasy: the bluebell has poisonous constituents, so is best left well alone.
“Promotes dreamless, perfect sleep”
If your taste is for death and seduction in a flower’s story, then the bluebell provides both. It takes two of its root names, Hyacinth and Endymion, from ancient Greek mythology. Sun god Apollo was besotted with the young Prince Hyacinth. One day, they were romping in the woods, when Apollo struck his beloved with a discus. Whoops. As he lay dying, Hyacinth’s blood dripped into the earth beneath. The world’s first bluebell sprang from this blood, and its flower was anointed with Apollo’s grieving tears.
Since that apocryphal moment, the bluebell has always been touched with grace and a certain wistful humility. Endymion, meanwhile, was a young man who chose to sleep forever, so that he would never grow old, or lose his youthful bloom. The moon goddess Selene fell in love with this sleeping beauty, regularly sneaking away from her job – which was to guide the moon safely through the heavens – to gaze at her beloved in his cave. (This is why the moon waxes and wanes, rather than being a constant presence in the sky. It’s all about lust.) The bluebell connection? The flower is said to promote a dreamless, perfect sleep. The sleep of sensual forgetting, the sleep of death …
“Almost certain to be in ancient woodland”
These days, the native bluebell is under threat of potential extinction. Since people have begun growing the Spanish bluebell in their gardens, this tough mediterranean specimen, Hyacinthoides Hispanica, is threatening the indigenous population. It’s a red squirrel/grey squirrel situation. But does it matter that much? Isn’t one bluebell much the same as any other? Not really. Britain’s wild bluebells are rather special: dark and pure in colour – hence the name “non-scripta” (not-written-on, blemish free), with a heavenly, honeyed scent. The Spanish bluebell is paler blue, its flowers flatter and coarser, and it lacks both the smell and the intensity of the native plant. Hybrids are now appearing, with an unhappy mix of the two plants, a watered down compromise of both.
When you walk through bluebells, it is almost certain to be in ancient woodland – unchanged wild areas, dating back to 1600 and beyond. This is the bluebell’s natural habitat and part of its special magic. It is a creature of place and time, of a beauty both ephemeral and bountiful. One of nature’s true gifts.
“Shifts and changes under our gaze”
Yorkshire is blessed with bluebell woods almost everywhere you turn. Here are some of the loveliest spots: Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge – a National Trust area with wooded valley, streams and waterfalls; Parcevall Hall in Appletreewick, near Bolton Abbey, with beautifully managed waters and woodland; Middleton Woods in Ilkley; and Plumpton Rocks near Wetherby, with its strange millstone grit rocks, glowering above a still, sepulchral pool – a native woodland walk beyond.
Within Leeds itself, the bluebell carpet spreads across the North of the city, from Gledhow Valley Woods in the East, to Meanwood in the West. Even tiny little Gipton Wood on Roundhay Road – a mere lucky stone’s throw from my house – boasts bluebells more vivid, prolific, dizzying and electric, with each passing year. In sunshine, like the morning blue sky just after dawn; in shadow, like the moodier violet-indigo of midnight dreams. The bluebell shifts and changes under our very gaze, but the wonder of it is constant. Take a walk in the woods this May. You cannot help but be enchanted.
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray