Here on my Shetland croft I have a few clumps of bluebells scattered around the place, at the foot of walls in damp nooks and corners. For all our days are getting much longer – it’s still light enough to go for a walk at 10pm – spring advances incrementally here. Some of my daffodils have yet to flower, and the bluebells are only now starting to think about it.
Perhaps their reticence owes something to their origin – these are Spanish bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanica, so maybe they’re not finding this northerly clime particularly comfortable. Certainly they’re not spreading, as the clumps remain static year after year.
The same can’t be said down on the British mainland – commonly found in gardens, Spanish bluebells are said to be spreading into the wild too, where they readily hybridise with our native bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Introduced by the Victorians, the Spanish interlopers have a matador confidence, upright and brash – our native bluebell is a more delicate, drooping affair, a Jane Austen heroine’s shy, anonymous sister by comparison.
Now is the prime time to visit a woodland on the British mainland and see native bluebells in full bloom, forming swathes of blue beneath acid-green, freshly popped leaves. I passed through Kent briefly last week, and spent a couple of happy hours exploring a couple of woods that used to be a short walk from my home when I lived there.
My cottage used to be surrounded by orchards, and would sit amidst a froth of apple blossom at this time of year. The orchards have all been grubbed out now, and it was sad to see my old home cringing beside a field of lurid yellow oil-seed rape, and labouring under a new name – after 150 years of being Holly Cottage, owing to the holly trees in the front garden, it’s been awkwardly renamed Brambledown. The holly trees are gone too.
The changes saddened me, and I carried them with me into the woods where their effect gradually diminished. It’s hard to stay feeling blue when you’re surrounded by bluebells. Photos often depict them as an unbroken azure sea but, when one looks closely, they’re a waxy confusion, a riot of twisted and braided stems, leaves and flowers.
When I was a child my mother refused to let me pick them. At first she told me it was wrong to pick wildflowers, but in time I realised her reticence was more selfish – she firmly believed it to be bad luck to bring them into the house. Snowdrops and hawthorn blossom were equally inauspicious and, I now realise, these were commonly held beliefs across rural England. I wonder why all these spring flowers should be considered unfit and unlucky to bring indoors? I also wonder whether the superstitions persist or whether, like the hapless orchards in East Kent, they are mostly a thing of the past nowadays.
I’ve heard it said that hawthorn was tainted by its association to Christ’s crown of thorns – other purported traces of the crucifixion are found in many bluebell woods themselves, for the purple-spotted leaves of Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula are said to represent the blood that fell from Christ on the cross. Unsurprisingly, I now know that bringing their flowers into the house was widely ill-thought of in the past – another spring flower damned by country superstition.
I walked through the bluebells following badger tracks that meandered along the contours of the sloping woodlands, pausing at a sett to marvel at the mounds of chalk and flint they had excavated and looking, half-heartedly, for any artefacts they might have brought to the surface. Badgers are not respectful of archaeology and sometimes bring treasure, or pottery shards, back up into the world from where they have laid undisturbed for centuries.
My treasure, however, lay all around me for amongst the bluebells were many Early Purple Orchids – the perfect lilac counterpoint to the blue tide in which they swam.