May 23rd, 2018
This May, the Welsh coast will be lit up in glorious hues of blue – not from the crystal clear waters, but from the stunning displays of bluebells that appear on clifftops and woodlands along the coastline.
“The Bluebell is the sweetest flower that waves in summer air. Its blossoms have the mightiest power to soothe my spirit’s care”. The opening lines of Emily Bronte’s poem The Bluebell, echo many people’s thoughts when they see the first bluebells of the year.
These delicate and pretty flowers are found in abundance across the country during the early months of summer and this little flower has a special place in our history and culture.
A single bluebell is itself a thing of beauty, but a vision of thousands of them spread over a meadow or across a forest floor can be breathtaking. Although bluebells, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta to use their binomial name, are commonly found in wooded areas, they do also thrive in open habitats like the wide cliff tops and meadows along the Welsh coast. And finding bluebells in an open area is a good sign that there were once trees and woodlands there. Much of the Welsh coast would once have been covered in dense forest, which is one reason why bluebells are still found in abundance here.
Because they grow so well in woodlands, bluebells are often associated with the tales, spirits and legends of old and creaky forests. A carpet of bluebells indicates that it’s an ancient woodland – because bluebells spread very slowly (they love the mineral rich soil that has been enriched by hundreds of years of falling autumn leaves) and they take so long to become established.
Bluebells do grow all over Europe but over 50% of the world’s bluebells are found here in Britain. This might explain why bluebells are often thought of as the nation’s favourite flower and have become a quintessentially British sign of spring. Their bright and intense colour, wonderfully sweet scent and elegant petals are so charming that a blanket of bluebells often evokes childhood memories of simple pleasures.
These pretty flowers are also steeped in legend and history. There’s the fable that says if the ringing of a bluebell is heard then you’d better watch out, because it’s a sign of impending death! And the tradition of a bride wearing something “blue” on her wedding day is thought to come from the idea that bluebells are a symbol of unbroken love and so were carried by brides on their wedding day. Bluebell sap was once used to bound books and the starch from crushed bluebell flowers was utilise by the Victorians to stiffen shirt collars and cuffs.
Wild about Blue
And bluebells are not only pretty to look at. Their bright petals attract a whole host of insect and plant life, which means a diverse range of wildlife are drawn to bluebell populated areas. Bluebells are often found in hedgerows too, and they’re rich in pollen so are great food for bumblebees who will then pollinate the area with more beautiful bluebell flowers.
Although they grow in abundance and are a common sight here in Wales, surprisingly, Bluebells are a protected plant, because they’re threatened across the world. Even here, where they are plentiful, the lovely bluebell is under threat from large-scale digging up of the bulbs, from colonisation by the non-native Spanish bluebell and from destruction by trampling and picking.
So the humble bluebell is currently protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; which means landowners are forbidden from removing the flowers from their land, and it is a criminal offence to remove the bulbs of wild bluebells.
This is great news for the swathes of lovely bluebells that you’ll find along our coast this spring.