Bluebells

Better late than never, the bluebells have finally reached their peak at Alvecote Wood.  Every spring, for a fleeting moment, there is a little catch in the throat and flutter in the chest as these beautiful little flowers are glimpsed among the trees.  Elegantly curved, softly perfumed, they carpet the floor, providing a beautiful counterpoint to the emerging leaves with their fresh lime-green colour.  To me, they are the quintessence of spring.
Bluebells are part of the very-important ground layer in a woodland.  There are the canopy trees, then the shrub layer, then the ground flora.  Emerging early, to capture the light before the canopy trees block it out, they are a vital part of the woodland ecosystem, providing pollen for early pollinators including bees and butterflies.

Bluebells are one of the reasons we need to manage our woodlands.  Clearing excessive bramble and thinning the canopy when it gets too dense have many beneficial effects, the most important being to let in light and warmth to the woodland floor.  Bluebells respond well to this, but so do lots of other things – we have lesser celandine, bugle, greater stitchwort, primrose, violets and wood sage at this time of year, and later come the foxgloves and various types of willow-herb, as well as the wild raspberries. If we are letting in enough light for the bluebells to thrive, then other things thrive too.

In this short sward we also see natural regeneration – little seedlings of oak, ash, hawthorn and silver birch start to come through.  This is the future of the woodland.

We figure that if we are managing the woodland well, then the bluebells are an indicator that we are doing our job.  Britain is surprisingly important for bluebells, having about half of all the bluebells in the world.  They may be common for us, but they are rare elsewhere, and we need to look after them.
As far as we can tell, all the bluebells in Alvecote Wood are the native English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta.  Unfortunately, these bluebells are becoming progressively more rare, coming under pressure from the Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica.  The problem is not only that this escape from gardens and colonises natural habitats, but also that it hybridises with the native bluebell, forming a hybrid Hyacinthoides x massartiana.  Hybrids are usually very vigorous, and this is no exception, resulting in more rapid growth and greater spread than both of the parent species.

How can we tell them apart?  Well, the native bluebell has a number of key characteristics:

  • Top is gently curved rather than straight upstanding – the Spanish and hybrids tend to be straight
  • The flower is long and slim with recurved petals at the end – the Spanish and hybrids are wider and the petals do not curve back to the same extent
  • The pollen on the stamens is white or cream coloured – Spanish and hybrids have blue or greeny-blue pollen
  • British bluebells are usually blue – they can rarely be white or pink, but if there are a lot of varied colours in a carpet of bluebells, this suggests hybridisation.

You can help track the spread of Spanish and hybrid bluebells in Britain through the Natural History Museum survey scheme.  Their web site is very helpful and gives lots of information about how to identify the bluebell types.
Another passion of mine is trying to capture the bluebells in photographs.  It is easy to take photos of bluebells, but harder to capture the “essence of bluebell”, by which I mean that emotional response you get when looking at a carpet of these beautiful little flowers.  My general approach to this is:

  • Get down low – get in among the bluebells and try and capture the feeling of being a creature living in the bluebell carpet
  • Focus on one or a few bluebells – don’t go for wide depth of field, go narrow, and let the rest of the bluebells merge into a blur of blueness
  • Try and get other colours into the picture, particularly that lovely lime green of spring
  • Make the most of the dappled light on the woodland floor

This is easier said than done when the floor is covered also in nettles and brambles, and you are allergic to Hyacinths (bluebells are just wild hyacinths, really, and give me horrendous hay fever).  But the rewards are there.  If you can capture the essence of bluebell on your camera, you have the most wonderful reminder of spring the year through, and particularly during those bleak winter months.  Bluebells are special plants for so many reasons.  Get out there and enjoy them while they are at their best.  They are a gift from spring to us, and one we simply can’t miss!

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