Rain streams down the windows, distorting my view of a sodden landscape. I can see streams that have never existed before, ponds that are deeper than I have ever seen them, lakes where there are normally fields. The journey to the wood is through a changed landscape, a watery world of shallows.
The field I walk through to the wood is a quagmire, our woodland paths are sloshes of mud. It’s really hard to feel motivated. But on each visit, I see the bluebell shoots increase in number, rising slowly, millimetre by millimetre through the wet ground, and I dream of the banks of deep blue flowers, the subtle scent of bluebells drifting on warm air, the beginning of spring.
I am not the only one, I suspect, dreaming of spring or of bluebells. The bluebell won Plantlife’s vote for the nation’s favourite wild flower, and the special place it has in people’s thoughts is borne out by the number of names it has been given over time: witches thimbles, fairy flower, granfer griggles, crow’s toes, wild hyacinth, wood bell, bell bottle, cuckoo’s boots, wood hyacinth, lady’s nightcap. Its Latin name is Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and because it’s adapted to make the most of the sunlight that reaches the woodland floor before the canopy becomes too thick, it flowers early, making it a bringer of the spring.
The bluebell is an indicator of ancient woodland, it’s a clue to the age of the hedgerows and broadleaf woodland it is usually found in. Over half the world’s bluebells can be found in the United Kingdom where the plants are able to reproduce both by seed production and by the vegetative production of new bulbs – it takes 5-7 years for a bluebell to develop from seed through to flowering. Bluebells are a vital food source in our ancient woodlands because they flower early; their nectar feeds butterflies, bees and hoverflies which may otherwise fail to find food so early in the season. Bees can even bite through the bottom of flowers to get to the nectar, stealing it from the plant without returning payment by way of pollination.
In the past bluebells have been pressed into service by us too. The sticky sap was used to bind books and stick feathers onto arrows, the bulbs were ground to make a starch to stiffen the ruffs of the Elizabethans, and the bloom itself represented humility, constancy, gratitude and everlasting love in the language of flowers. But, as with so many of the things that are part of our lives and part of our heritage, their place in our landscape is not a ‘sure thing’. The bluebell is under threat.
As we lose ancient woodland, so we lose the bluebell, and that problem in itself might be enough. But it’s not just the removal of woodland that can kill bluebells. It can take years for a bluebell to recover from footfall – crushed leaves are no longer able to photosynthesise – so as pressure on land use increases, so does the risk to the bluebell. The protection of the bluebell under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has at least reduced the number of plants looted from the wild; digging up plants or bulbs in the countryside is now prohibited. It is also an offence to trade wild bluebell bulbs or seed, and landowners cannot remove bluebells from their land to sell.
Unfortunately, there is another, more easily missed threat to the native bluebell in Britain; the Spanish bluebell, introduced from the Iberian peninsula as a garden plant by the Victorians. Whereas the native bluebell’s leaves are thin and delicate, the Spanish bluebell’s leaves are thick and robust. Native bluebells are a deep violet, with narrow tubular bells edged by turned back tips whilst Spanish bluebells are light blue cones with spreading open tips. Spanish bluebells lack the timidly drooping stalks of the native bluebells, flowers nodding to the side; instead they are upright, rigid, with stocky flowers spread all round the stem. The native plants hold creamy white pollen, while the pollen of the Spanish bluebell is green. And the Spanish bluebell has no scent. The flowers are actually very different when you look closely. The Spanish version is much more vigorous, so the danger is that it could outcompete the native bluebell, hybridising with the native flower and changing the genetic makeup of the original. Eventually, we could lose the native bluebell for ever, its characteristics diluted by those of the Spanish bluebell.
The question is, does it matter? As long as there are still bluebell woods, does the kind of bluebell there make a difference – it’s going to be hard enough to save the woodland never mind the bluebell. For me, it does matter. Years of evolutionary honing has gone into the native bluebell, it is perfectly designed for our UK woodland habitat and many creatures are evolved to rely on its particular characteristics – flowering time for example. The whole woodland environment has evolved in harmony and upsetting the balance of any system has unexpected consequences. Any reduction in biodiversity limits the gene pool, and with the change in climate, the plants need all the genetic variation they can keep just to survive. What if in thirty years time there is something the Spanish bluebell can’t cope with in our new climate (the rain for example…), and what if all the native bluebells are gone? There will be no potential for native bluebells to recolonise if they have become extinct. The end result would be a woodland devoid of bluebells. If we lose biodiversity, nature loses the flexibility to adapt that evolution has built into the system over millions of years. So for me, yes it matters on a scientific level. But it also matters on a personal, emotional level. Where would I be on the dark, wet days of winter without the dream of the scent of bluebells to keep me going? What a loss it would be if the nation’s favourite flower drifted quietly out of existence. Bluebell woods were once believed to be intricately woven with fairy enchantments. It would be very sad if the bluebell woods themselves became remembered only as a fairy story.