Written by Heather Elvidge
The blackthorn blossom has been breathtaking this year, forming snowdrifts along field edges and roadsides. Next it’s the turn of fruit trees and ornamental cherries.
But will their pink flowers dazzle in the sunshine, or shrivel under the onslaught of wind and rain? As we know, April is “a month of many weathers”. And although we crave the spring sun, it’s worth remembering that warm dry Aprils are often followed by a wet summer. So let’s have rain now – it’ll be worth it later.
Our native bluebells are coming into flower now, making an unforgettable sight in some ancient woods. They have an elegant, curving stem bearing slim flowers of deep violet-blue, quite different from the pale, ramrod-straight, Spanish bluebell that’s seen in gardens.
A lake of bluebells in a woodland glade is a feast for the senses. First, you notice the heavenly scent. Then there’s the colour, an intense, purplish shade with an otherworldly quality. It’s not surprising that our native bluebell is consistently voted Britain’s favourite flower.
Because they grow throughout the country - except on mountains and marshland - bluebells have acquired many local names. Their aliases include culverkeys, auld man’s bells, ring o’ bells, fairy bells, witches’ thimbles, and the romantic-sounding Elizabethan jacinth.
Medieval monks used powdered bluebell bulbs to treat leprosy, while in Wales they were thought to be effective against tuberculosis. The juice was supposed to cure the bite of a snake. Don’t be tempted to experiment; not only are they a protected plant, all parts of the bluebell are poisonous.
Bluebell sap is extremely gooey.
This natural glue was put to use in binding books, fixing feather flights onto arrows, and starching fashionable Elizabethan ruffs.
In the 19th century there was interest in the symbolism, or “language” of flowers. Bluebells represented the constant heart, and for a while it was the fashion to include them in wedding bouquets.
Surprisingly, there’s less bluebell folklore than you’d expect. Some say this is because the plant was associated with “the hidden people”, who would punish anyone who harmed it. Especially feared was the very unpleasant goblin that guarded bluebells growing under oak trees.
Although they are woodland plants bluebells will grow in most shady spots, or even in the open if the soil is damp enough. But it’s those sheets of blue under the dappled woodland light that stir the blood of poets.
Moved by the spectacle in May, 1871, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal: “In the clough, through the light, they come in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue...it was a lovely sight.”
Bluebells flower until the trees come into full leaf; then the canopy closes over and the levels of sunlight drop. If you’d like to enjoy them, these are the places to go: Raincliffe Woods, Scarborough; Stray Head Banks, Whitby; Bridestones Moor, Pickering; or Nut Wood and Wauldby Scrogs, Cottingham.