The bluebell is, unofficially, often considered to be the national flower of Britain. It creates a dazzling display when flowering en masse in May, a phenomenon not found anywhere else in its range. It is one of the most easily recognised flowers, being confused perhaps only with the cultivated hyacinths and with harebell, which is a much more delicate blue flower.
The scientific name has changed several times in the last thirty years, from Endymion, to Scilla, and now to Hyacinthoides, but always with the specific name non-scripta. This distinguishes it from the hyacinth of classical literature, in which the letters AIAI (which means alas) were said to have written by the god Apollo on the petals as a lament to prince Hyacinthus when he died.
The bluebell is a perennial bulbous spring flowering plant. The three or six narrow but succulent leaves are deep green, and grow to 45 cm in length in woodland, but often less in more open habitats. The fragrant bell-shaped flowers stand upright when they are in bud, but hang downwards, nodding in the breeze when fully open. The six petals are up to 20mm long, and are fused at the base to form a narrow, straight-sided bell with a curled-back edge. They are usually dark blue in colour, but white or pink flowers are not uncommon. They are arranged in clusters of 4-16 on flower spikes, and have cream-coloured anthers. Flowers appear from mid-April to early June, and are pollinated by insects.
After flowering, the flower stem elongates and grows upwards. Each flower produces a fleshy three-lobed capsule which ripens, then splits to release the black seeds. The leaves die back to leave the bulb underground, ready to produce leaves the following spring. The bluebell seeds profusely, and also reproduces by offshoots from its bulbs. As a result it can become a dominant species that carpets the woodland floor early in the spring.
The bluebell is widely thought of as a woodland species, and indeed is often an indicator of old woodland, as it spreads only slowly but persists once established. However, it is also found in hedgerows (which are often remnants of old woodlands), meadows, in upland areas, and on cliffs in western Britain. These last habitats are often open, but in areas of relatively high humidity. As the plants die back, they are often superseded by red campion (Silene dioica), and then by bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) which provides the shade equivalent of woodland trees coming into leaf. It prefers light, slightly acid soils. It is intolerant of trampling, heavy grazing, water logging, deep shade and competing with vigorous grasses.
The Bluebell is an ‘Atlantic’ species, meaning that it is found mainly in the more milder and more humid areas of western Europe. It is found from France to the Netherlands, but is absent from Scandinavia. As a garden escape, it has naturalised in parts of central Europe.
Widely distributed and common throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland (but absent from Orkney and Shetland), the bluebell is of international importance here as nearly half of the world population is found in the UK. However, some populations have been damaged by the large-scale commercial collection of bulbs, particularly in East Anglia. It is also susceptible to being picked and/or trampled in some areas, and its ability to hybridise with the imported Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is causing concern. The organisation “Plantlife” has identified the bluebell as one of a number of plant species that will struggle in the face of global warming. It is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP) Species of Conservation Concern.
The whole plant is poisonous. The bulb has diuretic and styptic properties, and has been used as a remedy for leucorrhoea.
The sap from the bulb and stem makes a strong glue for paper, and was used in glue for bookbinding as the toxins discouraged attack by silverfish (which are actually insects – Lepisma saccharina).
The toxicity of the bulb may be the origin of the belief that anyone who wanders into a ring of bluebells will fall under fairy enchantment and soon after die. Other tales include claims that any human who heard a bluebell ring would soon die. Not all of the Bluebell’s folklore is quite so gloomy. Wearing a wreath made of the flowers apparently compels the wearer to speak only truth. And if you could turn one of the flowers inside out without tearing it, you would eventually win the one you love.