Spring is finally here.
The temperature is up, the sun is shining, and it’s the perfect time to pop out for a stroll in the countryside.
One of the great attractions of the British countryside at this time of the year is to take a walk in bluebell woods. And this seemingly regular activity has been something of an unofficial annual ritual for a lot of folks for many generations.
Such is its popularity that not so long ago special trains would even be laid on to carry visitors to the woodlands, showcasing the beautiful panoramas dress in blue.
For example, a service of “bluebell trains” once used to run through the Chiltern Hills through the blooming woodlands while, in East Sussex, one particular stretch of tracks is still known as the Bluebell Railway.
Many nature parks still make a point of advertising when their woodland will be carpeted with a stunning sea of little blue flowers, and the National Trust even has a page telling you where the nearest bluebell wood is to you.
It is thought that the humble bluebell first appeared in Britain not long after the last Ice Age, and indeed the presence of a carpet of the little blue flowers is often a signifier that a forest is a surviving tract of ancient woodland.
However they have not only been admired for their beauty but have also long been revered for their useful properties.
For example, our ancestors from the Bronze age, attached flights of feathers to their arrows with a glue made from bluebells, while the Tudors used a starch extracted from crushed bluebell roots to stiffen their iconic ruff collars.
And, for several centuries, bookbinders have used bluebell derived adhesives to make and repair their precious tomes.
In the modern era we now know that bluebells contain at least 15 biological active compounds that the plant utilises to repel insect and animal pests.
And it would seem our ancestors knew something of this, as general folklore has long asserted that bluebells are poisonous to eat, and one of its uses recommended by herbalists, was treating spider bites. However folklore ascribes to them other more esoteric properties, such as being a good remedy for leprosy, and as a treatment for tuberculosis, but there is also a good deal of magic associated with them, as demonstrated by the various folk names the flowers have garnered over the centuries, including something like witches thimbles and fairy flowers.
Because they begin to bloom towards the end of April, they have been long associated with St. George, celebrated on the 23rd of that month, while in the language of flowers created by the Victorians, bluebells symbolise constancy, humility and everlasting love.
These associations may be derived from older folklore charms.
It was said in fact that if you wore a wreath of bluebells you would compel a person to tell the truth and, if you turned a bluebell flower inside out, you would win the heart of your true love.
More generally, bluebells were considered useful flowers in other ways too. For example, someone said that, If you saw a bluebell, you would pick it and repeat the a spell: “Bluebell, bluebell, bring me some luck before to-morrow night”. Then you would slip it into your shoe and, apparently, you would get good luck.
It was also said that bluebells may be used to prevent nightmares,simply placing some in or under your pillow, or hanging them near the bed and bad dreams will be kept at bay.
As in many places the little flowers have a strong association with the faeries, it was dangerous to be messing about in bluebells woods and it has been said that faeries hang their spells on them to dry.
So disturbing the bluebells may unleash wild magic upon you, or just bring the wrath of the faeries. Less whimsically, it was thought that walking in bluebells may lead you to become unable to find your way out of the woods.
And darker still in some corners of the country, it was said that a child who picks a bluebell will be snatched away by the faery folk, never to be seen again. Unsurprisingly many folks held it was foolish to pick bluebells or bring them into their houses.
In Somerset they say you should never venture into a wood to pick bluebells. If you were a child you may never come out again, and if you are a grown-up you will be pixy-led until someone meets you and takes you out.
However folklore is often very contradictory, and in some areas it was said that planting bluebells in your garden was a useful thing. Not only would it curry favour with the hidden faerie powers, but it was said that they would ring if unwelcome visitors approached your door.
Again, these whimsical bits of bluebell lore appear to have older, darker roots. It was held in fact that the faeries would ring the bluebells to call their kin to meetings. And it was very bad luck to hear a bluebell ring, as in many instances it is said that to hear their chime was an omen of your own death, hence in some places these lovely little flowers gained the sinister name dead men’s bells.
In any case there was a huge craze for all thing faery in Victorian and Edwardian England, and this ran so deep that our modern view of faeries owes far more to the romanticised whimsy of the Victorians than it does the actual legends concerning elves and the like.
The Scottish name for the flowers was “aul’ man’s bell”, meaning old man’s bell. In Scotland, “the Aul’ Man” was a nickname for the Devil himself, and therefore one did not wish to incur the wrath of the Dark Lord by picking his chosen flowers. Moreover, in ages past there was a close connection between Hell and the world of faery. Elves and sprites of folklore are dangerous beings, often cruel and malicious, and furthermore there was a belief that the faeries owed Hell an annual tithe of souls. Therefore it was thought that they snatched away travellers and children (sometimes leaving leaving changelings in their place) in order to spare their own kind being sent to the hell.
Also witches were closely allied to the elven folk. To begin with, witches in old European folklore were thought to be in league with the Devil, but in many witch trials in the United Kingdom, in particular those in Scotland, are many testimonies from alleged witches that they not only consorted with evil spirits and attended sabbats with the Devil and his imps, but also had dealings with the faeries, learning spells from them, and even visiting Fairyland. With such an ominous meedley of associations occurring in their alternative names, it is no wonder folks were wary of picking bluebells.
There are numerous other references to harebells actually ringing too. We find this old belief mentioned also in a song from 1911, An Autumn Song with lyrics by Fred G Bowles and music by Bertram Luard-Selby:
“How soon the Autumn day is done,
The briefer light, the lower sun
Pale hare-bells ringing in the wood.”
In any case the origin of all this bluebell lore can be traced in lot of old works.
However, despite there being no shortage of folklore surrounding the little flowers, actually pinning down any sources wasn’t easy. Not by chance, the bluebell’s proper Latin name is Hyacinthoides Non-scriptus, meaning literally ‘the hyacinth that is not written about’.
Well, actually it is a reference to Classical mythology, as the plant name Hyacinth is derived from a tale of a prince of ancient Sparta, Hyakinthos, who was loved by the gods. However the god of the West Wind, Zephyrus, grew jealous when Hyakinthos was enjoying a game with the sun god Apollo, and blew the discus they were playing with off-course.
The spinning disc hit Hyakinthos on the head and slew him, and where his blood fell, the Larkspur flower sprang up, which the Greeks called Hyacinthos. This flower has distinctive markings that resemble Greek letters, and the marks appear to spell ‘Alas’ in Greek, which mythology ascribes to the flowers showing Apollo’s grief. The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus placed the Larkspur and the bluebell in the same family, and hence the British wild flower was dubbed “non scriptus” or “not written” to show it was a variety that did not bear the distinctive markings, and not the flower referred to in the classical myth.
Interestingly enough, the bluebells have around 70 or so different names in the British Isles, including the most curious like Blue Bottle, Cuckoo Flower, Cuckoo’s Boots, Fairy Bells, Snake’s flower, Wild Hyacinth or Wood Bells.
Some are fairly self-explanatory referring to the colour and shape of the flowers, but there is also a frequent association cuckoos, a traditional harbinger of spring.
In fact, there has been a long tradition in the British Isles of when the first cuckoo is heard, a celebration that heralds spring has begun….
Images from web – Google Research