Reflections on Bluebells

Take a walk in the woods literally a garden gate away from my own home, and from mid-April onwards, you’ll find that Spring-spectacular that fills both the hardened naturalist and the everyday person-on-the-street with joy by the combined sight & sweet scent of the scene. It is of course the Bluebell Explosion that many deciduous woodlands across the UK experience for a month or so.

At the time of writing, the bluebells are on their way out, gradually giving way as Summer approaches and the more unruly brackens and nettles begin to sprout from the woodland floor. But of course that’s just another chapter in the great ecological cycle of the woods, the death of the flowers providing a nutrient-rich bounty of humus to improve the fertility of the soil and food for it’s detritivorous residents. The seeds for next Spring have already been sown, and by next year that wonderful scent you get on a fine April day will be wafting through the trees once more.

One of the many insects that benefit from the bluebell bloom, this fly already covered in pollen.

And of course, the bluebells provide a lifeline for the more maligned species’ too. An exposed flower is the perfect place for this tick to wait for its potential host to pass by.

It’s probably cliche to mention how bluebells don’t get so numerous in any other country, but it’s always been an intriguing question. Many reckon it’s due to the absence of wild boar in the UK for over 700 years (though with recent ‘unofficial’ reintroductions this is beginning to change), however a study by DEFRA and the Forestry Commission found that boar are unlikely to have any dramatic affect on bluebell populations. The bigger threat looming over these iconic flowers is of course competition and hybridisation with the Spanish Bluebell. My bluebell patch has been clear of either the Spanish species or a hybrid of the two every year so far, and 2012 has been no exception. However, just up the road in Winchester, bluebells in and around my college clearly appear to be the opposite. Add the ever growing shadow of climate change, and the future of the English bluebell wood starts to become more uncertain.

Whatever the future holds for this spectacle, here’s hoping it’ll be around long for future generations to gain the same feelings that bluebells stir in everyone else who’s had the pleasure of being surrounded by them on a sunny Spring day. As one of the few wildflower species that transcends the boundries between hard-nosed botanists and the casual observer, it’s a national treasure we can’t afford to lose.

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