Bluebell Woods

To many people, a haze of bluebells in a dappled shaded wood is the epitome of an early summer in Britain. Carpets of bluebells in May are the subject of numerous watercolour paintings. Delighting in the scientific name of Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebells are native throughout Britain except Orkney and Shetland. In wetter, western Britain, bluebells may grow in the open away from a protective tree cover but in the east they do best in the shade and extra moisture of woodland. Making use of early summer sunlight before the main trees are fully out, casting them into deep shade, bluebells often form homogenous stands. Like many blue flowers, pink and white forms occur naturally. The magnet of bluebell vistas in Spring attracts many visitors to the woods. Our native woodlands in both urban and rural areas are under increasing pressure from the sheer number of people wanting to enjoy them. Bluebells are under some threat. They have suffered for many years from picking and more recently from uprooting for commercial harvesting. New legislation making it illegal to dig up wild bluebells for sale to gardeners. Reproduction by seed is the bluebell's main method of propagation in many areas - if the flowers are trampled or eaten or picked, the population's long term survival is endangered. Bluebells also suffer from deer grazing particularly from the introduced Muntjac or barking deer in southern England. Even though bluebells are sensitive to trampling, their life form means they are not as susceptible as other plant species in the herb layer. However, the impact of trampling over several years is cumulative and can be drastic as the plant is progressively weakened year after year. "Your feet are killing me" is no exaggeration. The bluebell has a geophyte life form with the over-wintering or perennating buds in the bulb below the soil surface. That affords the most delicate parts of the plant protection not only from winter frosts but to some extent from trampling damage too. Considerable crossbreeding with introduced Spanish bluebells for gardens threatens the genetic purity of our native species of bluebells. Global warming might also affect the fate of bluebells - should we get warmer winters, other plant species will grow earlier and compete with, and possibly out-compete the bluebells by swamping them for light. Bluebells are coming under close scrutiny by scientists screening a range of British plants to discover if they contain substances of use in modern pharmaceutical drugs. Bluebells were traditionally used to treat leprosy and produce a wide spectrum of interesting alkaloids.