As I walk, I catch the faint smell again: floral and green yet stronger than that and sweet. Deep and beguiling, I know it from memory. Then suddenly swathes of bluebells can be seen washing throughout the woods. They stretch out of sight, winding between and under the trees in an intense azure coloured carpet.
Along the ridgeway, solitary oaks stand and fall in glades and mixed hedgerows mark the old trackways. This is where bluebells find sanctuary. Over half the world’s population of bluebells grow in the UK, mostly amongst trees that are of considerable age. Marking ancient woodlands and byways, they are something positive amidst age and decay.
Bluebells are also called Bell Bottle, Wood Hyacinth, Witches’ Thimbles, Lady’s Nightcap and Wood Bell but whichever name you choose, a broad trail of the scented sky-blue flowers sweeping under oaks, beech and hornbeams unfailingly manages to bewitch every walker.
However, the “common” bluebell is actually not in the least common and, like so many things, it is rarer than it once was.
Drifts take between five and seven years to establish from seed to flower and are fragile: if you trample over them, they often die as the leaves end up being unable to photosynthesize. Where they are left alone, these unique and complex communities thrive in the undisturbed soils and accumulated decaying wood, with fungi, invertebrates, insects, lichens and other plants. Unfortunately, a bit like the amazon rain forest, these woods are being felled at a shocking rate.
Despite being just a humble woodland flower, the bluebell symbolises everlasting love and was beloved of England’s patron saint, St George. The poet John Keats called it the ‘sapphire queen of the mid-May’, Tennyson described a mass of bluebells as looking like ‘the blue sky, breaking up through the earth’ whilst Gerard Manley Hopkins in his journal of 1871 wrote of ‘the blue-buzzed haze and the waft of intoxicant perfume’.
Naturally, they may well be the secret to the fairy kingdoms, folk lore suggest that the flowers’ bell heads could summon summer fairies to woodland gatherings and traditionally it was considered bad luck to bring a bunch into the house. In fact, these days they must not be picked at all as they are endangered.
It is, however, very possible to plant bluebell bulbs – the native variety – under the spreading branches of a tree perhaps in small irregular clumps. The bulbs need to be placed deep enough so that the white base of the green leaves is covered by soil. Water well and be patient: don’t cut off the foliage and each year they will strengthen in colour.
The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was both deeply observant of nature and struggled with Victorian industrialism which he felt was deeply damaging and took away the time needed to wonder at the marvels of the natural world. He felt that he lived in an age of vandalism, both actual and spiritual, which did not understand the ‘the greater significance of the growing green.” He wrote “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.”