Bluebells, wild hyacinths and harebells

This is my favourite time of year; the days are getting longer and it’s already light well into the evening, there are often warm and sunny spells of weather, and our woods are carpeted with beautiful blue flowers.

Most people would call the flowers in the image above bluebells, but in Scotland they are also known as wild hyacinths because Scottish bluebells are a different flower altogether. The blue flower that appears in ancient woodland in spring is the Hyacinthoides non-scripta (below, left). The Scottish bluebell is Campanula rotundifolia which flowers in the summer and is also known as the harebell (below, right). If this leaves you feeling somewhat confused, you are not alone. A public poll conducted by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh found the ‘Scottish bluebell’ was second only to the Scots Pine as the nation’s favourite plant but sparked debate about which species of flower voters actually meant.

Large colonies of bluebells (wild hyacinths), comprising millions of bulbs, are particularly associated with ancient woodland because they take many years to become established.Traditionally, bluebell sap was used as an adhesive, in making arrows and in the book trade, while crushed bulbs were a useful source of starch for stiffening cloth. Bluebells have magical associations too. Anyone picking bluebells risked being spirited away by fairies and hearing a bluebell bell ring was said to herald a visit from a malicious fairy. Perhaps more usefully, a garland of bluebells was thought to compel the wearer to tell the truth.

Nowadays, bluebells are a protected species and the concern is more about their loss as a result of damage to woodland from development and trampling feet than their use by fairies to trap the unwary … but still, better not pick them, just in case.