Now I have to 'fess up to feeling a tad proprietary about the bluebell. You see I was born at the end of April, when, as my mother still likes to tell me, the bluebells were in flower. And every year I have enjoyed my birthday with a side order of beautiful, fragrant bluebells. For me birthdays and bluebells have gone together like fish and chips or Fred and Ginger. As I've watched the bluebells sprout out of their winter hibernation, unfurl their long slender leaves and swell into bud I've felt the cycle of the year come around another turn, adding another year to my own personal tally in the process. In the old days I used to get quite excited. Do you remember how we used to lie to make ourselves older? Crazy times! Nowadays I'd really rather not dwell too much on all that cycle of the year mathematics, thanks all the same.
Yesterday Emi, the WonderDog and I went for a walk in Osterley Park, and I was surprised and delighted to see the Osterley bluebells in their full blue splendour. But I'm pretty sure they're early, because it's not my birthday yet - not for more than two full weeks.
Down the road in Kew Gardens they keep a record of these things. For over 50 years they've recorded the date on which their bluebells have bluebelled. It can vary by several weeks, but taking 5 yearly averages, they've noticed that the dates are getting earlier. Over the past 30 years - the period associated with accelerated global warming - the average blooming dates have advanced by 2 weeks.
Now I don't want to be a harbinger of doom, but that makes me worry. It never serves us well to knock Mother Nature out of kilter. The experts at Kew agree with me, and they've got all sorts of solid scientific reasons to back me up. Did you know that half the world's bluebells live with us here in the UK? And they're brilliantly designed to sneak into bloom way before anything else has grown foliage to starve them of light down on the forest floors where they thrive. But if spring is getting earlier, and the competing foliage becomes more plentiful during that brief spring window when conditions are bluebelltastic, then that, my friend, is a serious worry for the bluebells. As their window of perfect opportunity contracts, so too does their chance of survival.
And I've got a nagging doubt that what's bad for the bluebells is probably going to be bad for the rest of us as well. On an aesthetic level, how awful would it be to have springtime in England without those wonderful blue carpets that stretch out from under the trees? I've got a pain in my soul just thinking about it ... .
Bluebells in woodland are kind of like a badge of honour. Only very old woodlands get to grow bluebells. They reckon that where you see that wonderful carpet of blue, the woodland must have been planted by 1600 at the very latest.
But early or not, you'll have to agree they are exquisite. My "Handguide to the Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe" (bought for a quid in a National Trust second hand book shop) tells me that the botanical name for the bluebell is the Hyacinthoides Non-Scripta, which to my way of thinking is an immediately forgettable name. Up north in Scotland, my guidebook tells me, they call it the Wild Hyacinth, and, confusingly call the Harebell, a Bluebell, which, not wishing to be disrespectful, sounds perverse. Where I come from, we're quite clear that a bluebell is a bluebell. No ifs. No buts. No coconuts! A bluebell!
And bluebells have for generations featured large in our folklore. In the language of flowers they symbolise constancy. Let's hope that doesn't become ironic. In some parts they've been known as Fairy Bells, having long since been associated with the little folk, who were supposed to weave them together with threads of magic to keep them safe. Woe betide anyone who messed with the bluebells: they'd have the fairies to contend with! They'd cast spells on any miscreant who picked or damaged their bluebells. Out of fear of these terrible repercussions they were also known as Dead Man's Bells ... ☠️😳☠️
Let's hope that they survive, otherwise we'll have the wrath of the little folk to contend with ...
All the best for now,