Beautiful bluebells

Beautiful bluebells

Bluebells on a verge by Wendy Carter

Bluebells aren't just for woodlands as Wendy finds out...

Worcestershire is carpeted with bluebells once again but whilst many people head to woodlands, I prefer to search out these delicate flowers along roads, hedgerows and ditches - this is where they speak of landscapes past.

You may have heard a rumour that you estimate how old a hedge is by counting how many species it contains - allegedly it's one species per 100 years. Well, there's some truth in this but it's not an exact science. If there are bluebells along its base, however, you can be reasonably sure that the hedge and its wildflower bottom is all that remains of a much more wooded landscape. Whether on foot or by car, on my travels through our beautiful county, I often pass banks, verges, hedgerows and ditches that are lined with bluebells.

Bluebell Woodland by Paul Lane

Bluebell woodland by Paul Lane

We think of bluebells as a shade-lover because when we see them in woodlands, the tree canopy is growing leaves and shading out the woodland floor. Actually, they need plenty of light in spring so perhaps it's no surprise that you find them surviving along the more open landscape of hedgerows and roads. Our well-draining soils and long history of managing woodlands here mean that bluebells grow in profusion. In woodland settings, management has been key - coppicing (cutting trees to ground level) on a cyclical basis means that bluebells regularly have access to the all-important sunlight. Once a section of woodland has been coppiced, the bluebells can start to build up their stores so that they flowers can peak a season or two later. 

Male orange-tip butterfly (orange tips to white wings and mottled underwings) feeding from a bluebell flower (long, thin tube) by Bob Coyle

Orange-tip by Bob Coyle

As well as being an important source of nectar for bees, hoverflies and butterflies, bluebells have been associated with fairy folk for many years. Did you know, for example, that wandering into a ring of bluebells could see you succumb to fairy enchantment? Or that the ringing of bluebells gathers fairy folk to a gathering? And never trample bluebells unless you want untold bad luck (but why would you want to do that in the first place?).

Bluebell flowers by Robin Couchman

English bluebell by Robin Couchman

There are three different bluebells in the UK - our native bluebell (pictured), the Spanish bluebell and a hybrid of the two. Spanish bluebells were introduced by gardeners in the 17th century but when they escaped into the wild they began to hybridise with the natives. It's estimated that around one in six UK woodlands have all three varieties and there is concern that it may ultimately result in the loss of our nature bluebell. Flower stalks of native bluebells bend over and the bells tend to be on one side of the stalk; Spanish bluebells are more upright with bells (which are bigger and more flared) are all around the stalk.

There is a wonderful scent to the spectacle of a carpet of bluebells but perhaps there's more of a thrill in finding your own patch of bluebells that tell of a past landscape near you?