All about bluebells

June 6, 2024

Learn all about the science, conservation and folklore of bluebells.

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UK native bluebell

When considering the colour palette of the floor of a broadleaf woodland, it’s easy to picture the greens of summer, or the reds of autumn, but for a few weeks each year, between April and May, many around the UK, including our very own on the farm, are transformed to a sea of blue and purple. The warmer ground and the canopy not yet fully blocking the springtime sunshine creates the ideal conditions for an abundance of bluebells. Their limited flowering period, coupled with the fact the UK is home to around 50% of the world’s bluebells, certainly makes their springtime displays all the more special. They, along with species such as wood anemone and red campion, are considered plants called ‘ancient woodland indicators’; their presence in an area heavily implies that the woodland has persisted for an extended period of time. Popular among folklorists, pollinators and storytellers alike, these ancient woodland flowers are fascinating in many ways, from their ecological importance to the symbolism surrounding them.

Science, threats and conservation

Elsewhere in the world, bluebells are considered a relatively rare wildflower – indeed, we in the UK seem to hold a virtual monopoly on these carpets of blooms – but this doesn’t mean they aren’t facing threats locally, too. Habitat loss, illegal trade of wild bulbs and hybridisation with the non-native Spanish bluebell, are all resulting in the reduction of our native bluebell populations. The first wild hybrid was identified and recorded in 1963.

The Spanish variant (Hyacinthoides hispanica) was first introduced as a garden plant by the Victorians, and is generally far more competitive than the native variety (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). As a result, once they are introduced into a wild colony, they will generally outcompete the native species for space and light. Fortunately, Spanish bluebells are relatively easy to identify and differentiate from British bluebells – they are a paler blue, with upright stems rather than curved, and wider. Once they hybridise, however, it becomes harder to tell them apart, and so can result in altering the genetic makeup and diluting the original characteristics of the native species.

Of course, bluebells are a popular and important feature of Britain’s natural heritage, but popularity in itself can be an issue; they have been sought after as an ornamental plant, creating a trade for the wild bulbs – a trade which, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, is now an offence. Seeing and appreciating them in their wild habitat certainly is a preferable and encouraged option, but also must be carried out with some caution – the wildflowers are delicate enough to be easily damaged from just being trodden on, and continuous footfall can cause soil compaction, which in turn damages the bulbs. As colonies take around five to seven years to establish, it is heavily encouraged that stepping into bluebell clusters is avoided, but rather they are observed from established pathways. Fortunately, many bluebell woodlands now have visitor paths to protect the blooms.

A single one of these woodlands can contain millions of bulbs, producing the instantly recognisable carpets of blue many flock to see and photograph each year. However, their benefits extend far beyond their pleasing aesthetics. As they flower earlier than many other plants, which much prefer summer conditions, it is far from unusual to see bees, butterflies and hoverflies feasting on their nectar. Some bees have also been observed deviously biting into the bottom of the flower, allowing them to access the nectar without becoming laden down with pollen.

Folklore and symbolism

Historically called cuckoo’s boots, witches’ thimbles, crowtoes and lady’s nightcap, there are many stories and myths surrounding our bluebells, although many are far more macabre than you would expect from a flower which creates such a beautiful natural spectacle. Folklore often indicates that bluebells are intrinsically associated with dark fairy magic – from tales of uses in witches’ potions, to the belief that hearing the ringing of bluebells precedes a visit from a malicious fairy. Other stories contain heavily familiar tones of fairy mushroom rings, stating that wandering into a bluebell ring would result in being bound by a fae enchantment.

These stories are a high contrast from their assigned floriography (Victorian language of flowers) meaning – they are said to represent humility, constancy and gratitude, with the superstition being that if an individual is able to turn a bell inside out without tearing the petals, they will succeed in winning a romantic partner (although, these days I’m sure less destructive methods are preferable!).

With their woodland displays inspiration for an abundance of stories, and a great support for an abundance of pollinators, it is undoubtedly a fact we must continue to care for these wildflower populations. We are, after all, lucky enough to have the global majority in the UK. Every year there is a wonderful display right here on the farm. The adornment of a bluebell carpet very much makes the woodland, Welly Walk and Motte and Bailey site an extra joy to wander through, though as yet I have never heard them ring… here’s hoping it remains that way!

Francesca Lant

Marketing and Communications Officer

This article was first featured in the Summer 2023 edition of the Grazer magazine. For more info and to subscribe, visit:

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