Although swathes of bluebells characterise the ancient woodland of England, this plant is relatively rare on the continent. Probably 90% of the plants of this species are found in Great Britain, so we have a special responsibility for its preservation. It is in the Liliaceae, a family that also contains the Fritillaries, Lily of the valley, Solomon’s seal, Hyacinths, and the wide variety of lilies, which we grow in our gardens. It is quite different from the ‘Bluebells of Scotland’ which is the name given there to Campanula rotundifolia (also known as Harebells).
Many people grow ‘bluebells’ in their gardens, though this is usually the Spanish species (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and this often becomes naturalized in the countryside. These two species are quite different on close examination. Although the blue colour is identical, the flowers of our species are smaller and arranged on one side of the stalk, while the Spanish species has flowers arranged around the stem. The latter species is more vigorous, has blue anthers, has erect flowers, while the British species (left, W.H. Fitch, 1919) has cream anthers, and the flower is pendulous and more cylindrical, unlike the bell shape of the Spanish form. White variants of both species are found rarely, due to a mutant lacking one or more of the enzymes forming the pigment.
The name of the genus for the bluebell has changed several times. At first it was called Endymion, then Scilla, then Hyacinth, and now Hyacinthoides! All of these names are derived from classical Greek mythology. Endymion was a handsome youth who spent much of his life in perpetual sleep. Scilla (Scylla) in one version was a beautiful maiden beloved of the sea god Glaucus. However this made Circe jealous and she transformed the lower part of her body into that of a fish, like the original mermaid! Hyacinth was the son of a Spartan king, loved by both Apollo and by Zephyr, the west wind. Hyacinth preferred Apollo, so Zephyr killed him, and the bluebell sprang up from Hyacinth’s blood. The Greek species of bluebell seems to bear the letters “a i”, meaning ‘woe’ or ‘calamity’. The English species does not bear this inscription and is said to be ‘non-scriptus’! Hyacinthoides means ‘looking like a plant in the genus Hyacinthus’.
In earlier times, the bluebell bulb was a source of mucilage, which was used as a glue to fasten the feathers to arrows, to stiffen the collars of the fashionable Elizabethans, and later in bookbinding. More recently it has been found that there are pyrrolidine alkaloids present in the bluebell (see structure to the left; A. Watson et al., 1997) that are powerful bacterial glycosidase inhibitors. These have considerable potential for the treatment of tuberculosis and leprosy. They also make the plant poisonous to cattle.
English bluebells are now protected plants under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), and it is illegal to dig them out of the ground. Recent work has shown that trampling on the plant, even when it is entirely below ground, is even more harmful than picking the flowers, since the apex becomes damaged and will then no longer form leaves.
20 May 2007
I met her in the greenest dells
Where dew drops pearl the wood blue bells
The lost breeze kissed her bright blue eye
The bee kissed and went singing bye
– John Clare (1793 –1864) Song