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I am blessed to have grown up in an area where bluebell woods abound. At this time of year, the Clent and Walton Hills, Uffmoor and Hagley Woods, and Wychbury Hillfort are carpeted with swathes of this beautiful flower. Though I cannot walk through these indigo seas this year, I found a much-desired stand-in this spring at the Key Hill Cemetery, close to where I live in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
Sitting amongst these stunning blooms, even if only for a little while, I really felt at peace. I decided to write about bluebells for this week’s Folkdays post, and share some facts, folklore, and photos of this, the country’s favourite flower.
Beginning with its etymology, bluebells are entangled with mythology and folklore. Formerly, its botanical name was endymion, after the mythological figure of the same name. Endymion’s lover, the moon goddess Serene, cast him into a perpetual sleep so as to preserve his beauty. Bluebells have since become associated with everlasting love, constancy, and dreamless sleep, and were once made into a tincture to prevent nightmares.
I, however, love the more varied names of folklore: cuckoo’s boots, lady’s nightcap, witches’ or fairies’ thimbles, dead men’s bells. Seas of bluebells are thought to be imbued with fairy magic, and wandering amongst them during twilight brings bad luck. Fairies are said to ring the bell-shaped flowers to summon their kin to a gathering, but if a mortal hears this or walks into a circle of bluebells, the fairy enchantments can even be fatal.
Bluebells have had a myriad of uses over the centuries. Perhaps a root for the belief that bluebells bear fatal enchantments, their sticky sap carries toxins, making it perfect for binding the pages of a book and deterring pests such as silverfish. It is a little worrying then, that back in the thirteenth century, bluebells were used by monks to treat illnesses, including leprosy and even snakebites..! Perhaps their toxic nature was discovered by the Elizabethan period, as instead of ingesting it, bluebell bulb juice was used as a starch for cuffs and ruffs.
Today, most of us choose simply to admire their serene beauty. According to the Woodland Trust, almost half of the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, and they are quite rare in the rest of the world. When found in the wild, amidst the shade of broadleaf trees, they are an indicator of ancient woodland, maybe up to 400 years old. They can be grown domestically too: they can solve many of a gardener’s problems by doing well in shady spots, bringing colour before many other flowers have bloomed, and by being an early nectar source for bees and other insects!
Bluebells are typically a bright indigo blue, but can also be found in shades of pink or white. I was really fortunate to find some of these rarer pink flowers in my little oasis in Birmingham! Both the blue and the pink flowers, paired with the rich green of their stems and leaves, are for me the colours of spring. They are a merry little plant: individually delicate but also luscious, with a resilience in numbers. While its beauty is captivating, there is something mysterious in its nature too, in the way in thrives in shadow, in places that few choose to tread.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, bluebells abound in the woodlands of home, and provide a mysterious backdrop for the story of Bella and the Wych Elm. Unlike the tranquil Uffmoor, the well-trodden Clent, and even the ancient Wychbury, Hagley Wood is private land and is therefore mostly untrodden. It is in this woodland that the remains of ‘Bella’ were found in April 1943, and being springtime, the bluebells were in bloom. One of my poems in Bella tells of the search for bones amongst the flowering plants – a sinister occurrence in a beautiful setting, which I think reveals the duality of the bluebell quite well. I’ll leave you with that poem now.
Bluebells First light steals across high treetops and the forest wakes not with a yawn or with song but in an opening of eyes in stillness as the forest waits to thaw Between the trees they call to each other treading softly their eyes to the ground Home Guardsmen combing even paths and Boy Scouts kicking clumps of leaves And all the while the wych elm watches its stiff branches even dawn cannot cure they mark it with a cross but speak no rites as bones resurface amongst the bluebells
There’s plenty of good resources out there to read about bluebells and other plants and flowers. Here are the books and articles I used.
- The Secret Language of Flowers, by Samantha Gray
- A Treasury of British Folklore, by Dee Dee Chainey
- Collins Gems: Wild Flowers, by Martin Walters
- Bluebell Enchantment, by The Hazel Tree
- How to Grow Native Bluebells in Your Garden, by the Woodland Trust
- Plant Lore and Legend, by Ruth Binney (this doesn’t actually have any entries on bluebells, surprisingly! but it’s a lovely volume and very useful, and so deserving of a mention)
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