Tuesday, 28 April 2015

An Intoxication of Bluebells

Pond Wood, April 2014. 

                                                             The bluebell is the sweetest flower
                                                             that waves in summer air;
                                                             its blossoms have the mightiest power
                                                             to soothe my spirit's care...
                                                             (Emily Bronte)

Writing this I have realised that the fragile beauty of bluebells shines a bright light on my perverse nature. Always drawn to the underdog, I insist on preferring carrion crows to 'show-offy' ravens and have often ignored bluebells altogether. Voted our favourite national flower in 2002, and currently leading Plantlife's new national wild flower poll, they are just too popular and too pretty and I wilfully refused to be swept away by the beauty of their shimmering cobalt sea. But I have to admit to having become intoxicated by bluebells. I have much to be grateful to them for.

In 2014, I met my love, Simon in a bluebell wood in Kent whilst attending a shamanic weekend. Having recently been through a bereavement, I felt that the land had called me there and that the bluebells, which flowered very early that year and smelled so powerfully of green and honey, were offering me healing. I spent much time sitting in the middle of an expanse of bluebells letting the land 'see' me and allowing bees and other flying things to hover in front of my eyes. I went for a walk and found a jay's wing feathers scattered electric-blue across the woodland floor. Everything was the blue of ebb and flow and letting go and love came in. We should never underestimate the power of seemingly delicate bluebells to unlock magic. As Peter Marren writes, No woodland scene has the power to move the heart more than a bluebell wood in May” and so it was.

Born new each year, bluebells are often a sign of the oldest of the old undisturbed land. Almost 50% of the world's bluebells can be found in the UK and they are an indicator of ancient woodland, many bluebell woods dating back to at least 1600. The Elizabethans knew them as 'jacinths' and used their bulbs to make stiffening starch for ruffs. Earlier still 'glue' from their stalks was used to stick pages in books and feathers on arrows; our relationship with the bluebell tribe has been much more than just aesthetic. Appearing in hedgerows or bracken they are a vestige of woods long since vanished. No wonder that their hanging heads are sometimes said to be symbols of sorrow and regret.

Pond Wood, April 2014

Indeed, the folklore of bluebells is 'edgier' than we might have imagined. Like all of our oldest native flowers, they have myriad folk names; cuckoo's boots, crowstoes, granfer griggles, goosey ganders, wood bells, bell bottles, but many; fairy caps in Wiltshire, fairy bells and fairy thimbles in Somerset, fairy cups and fairy ringers in Dorset, give a clue to the tales about them which are so often linked to the world of faery. But these faeries are not the sweet little creatures with petal hats that we find in our familiar fairy stories. These are tricksters and charmers. It was said that faeries used bluebells to trap passers by, particularly children, and it was considered dangerous to try to walk through a bluebell wood as the flowers were so intricately entwined with enchantments that one might become 'pixie-led'. We might smile now at such superstitions but it is never easy to tear ourselves away from the hypnotic beauty of a carpet of bluebells in a dappled woodland, seeming as they do to almost pulsate with ethereal voltaic light. It is a struggle not to get lost in glamoury, such is the seduction of the vision. Other traditions suggest that wearing a bluebell wreath would compel the subject to tell nothing but the truth, that someone hearing the ringing of a bluebell would soon die (hence the sometimes-name 'deadman's bells'), and that if a flower could be turned inside out without it becoming torn then true love would be won.

Their scientific name, hyacinthoides non-scripta, comes from a Greek myth that Apollo accidentally killed a young man called Hyakinthos; where his blood fell wild hyacinths grew and the markings on their leaves appeared to spell out the Greek word for 'alas'. Bluebell leaves, in contrast, are unmarked and so 'non-scripta', meaning 'no writing', signals that they are a different flower. Despite their scientific name distancing them from death, bluebells are in fact extremely poisonous and contain at least fifteen active chemical compounds, which may provide them with protection against foraging animals. Their water-soluble alkaloids are being studied for their medicinal qualities but they also contain glycosides, called scillarens, which are similar to those found in foxgloves and can lower the pulse rate and cause nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. At higher doses they can cause cardiac arrhythmia and electrolyte imbalance. Existing on the edge between love and death, joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude, the bluebell tribe establish a poison sea that reminds us to respect even the ostensibly inconsequential, to acknowledge that the sweetness and the sting can exist in one small being.

Oxleas bluebell, April 2015
Just as they are said to be able to entrap humans, bluebells possess a woodland like few other plants can. They respond to the light and so flower in April and May, before trees are fully in leaf. They deter most competitors both through their poisons and through sheer force of numbers. It is important that they have this collective strength as it takes at least five years for a bluebell to grow from a seed to a bulb and then to flower. They are under threat through habitat loss, from their bulbs being uprooted for gardens, and from the grazing of sheep, cattle, and muntjac deer. Bluebells are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is now an offence to trade in their seeds or bulbs, with a breach attracting up to a £5000 fine per bulb. A further threat to our own native bluebells comes from hybridisation. The Spanish bluebell, 'hyacinthoides hispanica', is a native of the Iberian peninsula and was introduced to the UK as a garden plant, possibly as long ago as the 17th century. It can be distinguished from the English bluebell by its larger, paler flowers, erect stem, broader leaves, and blue anthers (the English bluebell has creamy white ones). It is also said to have very little smell, although this has not been my own experience. The Spanish bluebell interbreeds very successfully with the English variety, creating fertile hybrids, and the latter is now considered a threatened species. In a recent study by Plantlife, one in six of the bluebells found in the broadleaved woodlands surveyed were found to be hybrids.

I have mixed feelings about our often sentimental efforts to preserve 'purity' in nature when nature itself has no such attachment; hybrids can often be stronger and afford plants greater protection against changes in environment. It is telling that the bluebell is dedicated to our St George, the Palestinian saint of the English, who has connections to so many lands and peoples. The English have always been hybrids. I had an interesting conversation about the subject with Norma Saunders, of the Dawn Chorus Educational Initiative, who commented that, "Human society seems strive for a purity that is not sustainable in the face of climate change. I love Ruddy Ducks & Sycamore trees & oppose the eradication programmes for so many species. They are living beings & deserve respect & a chance of life & after all, adaptation via natural evolution may be key to survival. However, I love English bluebells...they are so much nicer in delicacy, colour & scent than the Spanish ones &, as an indicator of ancient woodland, they carry the spirit of British woodlands. But I fear that the Armada will win this time...I see no way of preventing the interbreeding. The contamination of isolated bluebell woods, however, serves as an illustration of the huge range of travel of pollen & the dangers of GM crops...perhaps this sad example which indeed unbalances the chain of biodiversity is a gentler, vital message that we must heed in the case of science meddling with open pollinated communities." Bluebells, like all our green allies, are great teachers. In the meantime, Spanish bluebells do seem to flower at the same time as our native variety and I have seen bees collecting from them so hopefully, whatever happens, the niche of the bluebell tribe will continue to be occupied.

Writing this piece I began to reflect on what it might be like to experience 'bluebell consciousness'. They feel to me to have a collective consciousness much like that of bees, and with similar worlds which are both visible and veiled. Above the surface are the mass of flowers with which we are so familiar and yet, beneath the woodland floor where the work takes place, secret things are stirring. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in 'Adeline', "How the merry bluebell rings to the mosses underneath...". The bluebell bulb has contractile roots, which draw it deeper and deeper into the soil and there they connect with a web of arbuscular mycorrhizae; symbiotic soil fungi which helps the bluebells take up phosphorous and water over a greater area than the plant could do alone and, in return, receives food. Each mycorrhizae may create a surface area several hundred times that of its host and forms a vast network of communication. And what of our own place in this ancient warp and weft? Nothing in nature is just an 'object'. Everything is a system in constant movement and often we discount our own place in that movement. Such is the intoxication and enchantment, both visual and olfactory, of the flowering of a bluebell wood that, perhaps, they offer us an invitation to weave ourselves back in. How must it feel to that great and complex structure of flower, and fungi, and leaf to have our collective joy and appreciation added to it? How many of us send out the energy of our hearts into that space just before the haze of bluebells begins to shimmer in an immense common yearning for the year to move forward into summer? How must it feel to be loved so deeply? Perhaps we can ask the people of the bluebell tribe and, sitting in a bluebell wood full of green and honey, how could I not be ready for love to come in?

Pond Wood, April 2014.


'England in Particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular, and the distinctive', Sue Clifford & Angela King, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

The Poison Garden website ~ bluebells

Further investigation: 

The Dawn Chorus Educational Initiative works to further the cause of the wild, including wild flowers. Find them at http://dawnchoruseducationalinitiative.org.uk/

Common Ground is a wonderful charity which explores the relationship between nature and culture, including our relationship to our iconic bluebell woods. Find them at http://commonground.org.uk/

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