One white bell

‘Gentle fairies, hush your singing: / Can you hear my white bells ringing…?’ asks the Lily-of-the-Valley fairy in Cicely Mary Barker’s song1. Last week it became apparent that we, at least, had missed this particular peel of bells. We’d spent the morning checking nest boxes2 – there’s over fifty percent occupancy at the moment – and seen tiny skin-and-bone blue tits struggling from their eggs and enormous nuthatch chicks ready for the off. I’d had some pretty ferocious glares from mother blue tits too as my inspection camera peeped in at the nest holes, so there seemed to be a number of birds still brooding. But in addition to seeing these wonderful snapshots into the lives of our woodland birds, another nice thing about keeping an eye on our 150+ nest boxes is that it takes us into corners of the wood that we don’t often visit, and in trying to remember exactly where each numbered box is, we wander about a bit in spots we haven’t spent time in before. It’s also true that each time we feel pretty confident we are getting a handle on the wood, it surprises us; last weekend was no exception. I heard Mark call and when I went to investigate, he and the girls were examining a huge patch, around four metres square, of what looked like ramsons (wild garlic). But in the centre, on a broken stem, between slug-browsed leaves, hung a single white bell. If this plant had been in full health, the fairies at least should have been hearing a cacophony of ringing bells, for we had found lily-of-the-valley, a plant we had no idea was growing in our wood.

It is a lovely plant to find. An indicator of ancient woodland, it grows in damper ground and often on limestone, the rock underlying our wood. Its delicate flowers dangling from its arching stem, are fragrant, and will go on to become red berries in the autumn. Clasping the stem round its base are two oval, smooth edged leaves that are paler than ramsons and the plant spreads using rhizomes as well as seeds. The distinct downside to lily-of-the-valley is its toxicity – every part is poisonous – and its initial similarity to ramsons is a slight worry, given the children like to graze when they wander the wood. However, ramsons do have the very obvious garlic smell that I have taught the children to check for before they sample, and the flowers are very different, one being bell shaped, the other like a frilly white pom-pom. Despite lily-of-the-valley’s toxicity, there is folklore surrounding its benefits; it is famously found in the first chapter of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stephenson, recommended as a good health tonic which can do everything from strengthening heart and memory to curing gout. The flower is seen to represent purity, and it has Christian symbolism as the flower which was said to have sprung up where Mary’s tears fell to the ground at the crucifixion of her son. The plant makes a good natural dye too – peach when the leaves have faded in the autumn and green if the leaves are picked earlier.

The clump of plants in our wood is likely to be derived from a single parent plant. The individuals are not as healthy as they should be, probably from being completely shaded, so we need to do a little work around them to ensure they thrive. Lily of the valley prefers partial shade, so opening up around them will help – it’s a balance though – open up too much and they will dry out. A gentle approach is the way to go.

So the wood continues to share its secrets and we continue to adapt the way we manage the wood to what we find there. It is a rewarding experience to see change happening because of the work we put in; all the young birds in the nest boxes, for example. And it is satisfying to think that, within a few years, if we are careful, we will have a floral display of lily-of-the-valley worthy of ear defenders for any passing fairy.

1The Song of the Lily-of-the-valley fairy
2Following the BTO nest recording code of conduct.

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