“The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air:
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.”
In 2002 the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) was voted Britain’s most popular flower and so was adopted as the national flower of Britain. As with most places in Britain Dartmoor has numerous places where; “bluebells bring down a gleam of sky to the verdant earth.” They can be found in the leafy woods, the steep hedgerows and the lowland enclosures. During the month of May there can be seen spectacular dense blue carpets of bluebells all gently tolling in the moorland breeze. It’s supposed that 50% of all common bluebells grow in the United Kingdom. Where large carpet-like areas of bluebells grow can often be taken to indicate the one-time presence of ancient woodland. In 1998 the bluebell was included in the amended Countryside and Wildlife Act which means it’s illegal to dig up the bulbs or sell them along with the seeds. This welcomed action was very much down to the times when men, women and children would go picking bluebells and returning home with huge bundles. Some were under the impression there was money to be made in the London flower markets but those whose speculated on this often lost money.
Despite being a common sight the English bluebell is under threat from immigrants. Back in 1963 a hybrid species called ‘Hyacinthoides x massartiana’ was recorded growing wild in the UK. This species is a cross-breed of the English bluebell and its close relation; the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica). As a plant it is considered as being highly fertile and is rapidly gaining ground in urban areas. Not only that but the plant is now beginning to appear in native woodlands and due to its ability to thrive is taking over from the English bluebell. This situation is a cause for concern because once established amongst the native plant there is a very real danger of hybridisation which could result in the dilution of the natural traits of our English bluebell.
The other problem is actually identifying what is an English blue bell and what is the hybrid variety as both are very similar. According to the Natural History Museum the best way is; “to look at the colour of the pollen – native bluebells have creamy coloured pollen and non-native have other colours such as pale green or blue.” Each year a project team carry out a bluebell survey to firstly establish whether climate change is effecting flowering times and also to gauge the spread of the hybrids and how much of a threat they are posing.
On a lighter note, as with any area of the country the locals always come up with their own alternative names for plants. Dartmoor is no exception and some old names for the bluebell found in and around the Moretonhampstead area are; Goosey-Gander and Rook’s Flower. Occasionally the aliases of Crow Flower and Cross Flower are also met. How or why they came to be is anybody’s guess?
As with most plant species mankind has over the centuries found some uses for the bluebell. The bulb has proven to be the most useful insomuch as it was used to make a starch for stiffening collars or ruffs. The only problem with this was that because it is also highly irritant the poor laundresses often developed painful sores. Another use for the starch was in bookbinding as it formed a paste which was ideal for gluing pages together. The sap of the bluebell had in the past been used as a fletching glue in order to attach the feathers of an arrow to its shaft.
If we wander through the realms of superstition we can find that at one-time it was considered very unlucky to bring bluebells into the houses of anyone who kept poultry. Should such a person dare to ignore this advice they would soon find that they had a shortage of chicks, ducklings, etc. The reason being that the eggs simply would not hatch out.
Everyone at one time or another has seen pictures of fairies or piskies wearing hats made from bluebell flowers. Way back the bluebell has always been associated with the ‘little folk’ and several superstitions have grown from this association. Should anyone ever want to summon the piskies all they had to do was ring the plant as if it were an actual bell. But on the other hand if any unfortunate soul should ever actually hear the bluebells ringing then this was a sign that their or a loved one’s time on earth would very soon end. Having such a strong association with the piskies it was never a good move to stroll through a carpet of bluebells as there was a distinct danger of being exposed to the magic spells of the little folk or even worse being piskie-led.
Before the days of modern polygraphs an excellent way of finding out if someone was telling the truth was to hang a garland of bluebells around their neck – no matter how hard they tried the truth would out. If by any chance you didn’t believe that is was bad luck to pick bluebells and were in dire need of some good luck all you had to do was pick a flower and recite; “bluebell, bluebell, bring me some luck before tomorrow night,” and then put it in your shoe.
Medicinally the bluebell has a few uses, when the root is used as a styptic and uses sparingly it is said to cure women’s ‘whites’ whatever they are. There are also a few lines written by Lord
Tennyson which suggests that the bluebell was used as a cure against adder bites; “In the month when earth and sky are one, To squeeze the bluebell ‘gainst the adder’s bite.”
Regardless of what one believes there can be no doubt that a carpet of bluebells is a heart warming sight and a sure sign that summer is on its way. There are numerous locations on Dartmoor where spectacular carpets of bluebells can be see. Probably the easiest one to get to is Holwell Lawn, others being Meldon Woods, Tavy Cleeve, and the deserted farm at Emsworthy to name but a few. For many years Okehampton Castle has been noted for the bluebell carpets in its grounds and today the National Trust holds a regular ‘Bluebell Sunday’ in May when visitors can enjoy the spectacle (although with the current 2020 Covid-19 there may be a problem). In 1933 the following appeared in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette; “The Governors of Okehampton Castle Trust opened the Castle ground free to the public on Sunday. The sun and warmth of March and April, followed by the rain has produced a profusion of bluebells almost as thick and closely clustered as Hyacinths. The lower slopes of the Castle Woods are practically covered with a blue carpet.” – May 26th, 1933. Even today when driving along the A30 towards Cornwall underneath the castle grounds this ‘blue carpet’ still can be seen.
“This earth is one great temple, made
For worship everywhere;
The bells are flowers in sun and shade
Which ring the heart to prayer.
The city bell takes seven days
To reach the townsman’s ear;
But he who kneels in Nature’s ways
Hath Sabbath all the year.”
Finally just a few ‘factoids’; the flowers of St. George is the bluebell, if your birthday is on the 30th of September then your flower is the bluebell, it takes 5 years for a bluebell seed to grow into a bulb, bluebells are a symbol of constancy or everlasting love and is why ‘the something blue‘ that a bride must have on her wedding day, bees can steal the bluebell nectar without pollinating the plant by biting a hole in the top of the flower, badgers also have been known to have a penchant of bluebell bulbs, and amazing enough I can find no place-name on Dartmoor with ‘bluebell’ in it.