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05/06/2005 Archived Entry: "Bluebells"
From time to time, one reads that certain wild flowers are under threat from various sources. The bluebell featured in this kind of tale, the threat being from a Spanish variety of the flower which is far stronger than ours, much more invasive and very difficult to eradicate. Its powerful presence is a threat to our own more delicate flower and, if you have bluebells in your garden, it is probably the invasive variety: I know because we have it in our garden and it is threatening to take over completely - it is even coming up through our tarmac drive.
Now, it seems, the humble and pretty bluebell is facing another challenge, this time from a weed known as alexanders. In an attempt to protect the bluebell, a team of 300 volunteers will be attending Kew Gardens in May, their purpose being to remove an armada of alexanders in the hope their actions will save the bluebell which is the emblem of the British countryside. At the same time, more volunteers will be undertaking similar work in other parts of the country.
But exactly which bluebell is the focus of this activity? Several British wild flowers are called bluebell, one being the harebell - bluebell is its Scottish name although it is also known as bluebell in some areas of England. Periwinkles are also called bluebells in this country but the focus of this renewed interest is that beautiful blue woodland plant which blooms around this time to adorn many of our forest floors. Thriving in dense colonies, its rich blueness produces a kind of haze among the trees and the stems produce a squeaky noise when they rub together.
Perhaps a more positive name is wild hyacinth, although the plant has dozens of other names across Britain, ranging from wood bells to crows' legs. In woodlands around this region, it can now be seen among the trees although it does thrive in other places such as our coastal regions, open scrubland, mountains and along our hedgerows. It grows from a white bulb, with its head of several blue flowers hanging to one side from a single stem which bows slightly at the top; tall slender leaves grow around the stem and the bluebell's height can range from about eight or nine inches up to about eighteen inches (20-50cm or so).
The bluebell is protected by law, and digging up the bulbs is a criminal offence; a few years ago, three convicted criminals were caught digging up more than 7,000 bluebell bulbs and were fined. It seems, however, that picking the flowers does not cause a great deal of harm. A bluebell plant can survive without its flowers but the problem arises when people stand on its leaves and crush them. The bluebell depends upon its leaves for food, and when they are crushed the plant will die.
The bluebell does not appear in floral histories of this country before 1548; it grew in countries bordering the Atlantic and was not known in either Greece or Rome and so the early herbalists did not consider it important. They ignored it, even though it grew in profusion here long before 1548 when it was known as crowtoes or perhaps crawtrees in the north.
It did have some use, however. The white bulbs were used to make a glue and the plant also produced starch, this being used to stiffen the fashionable and very elaborate collars or ruffs worn in Elizabethan times.
There seems to have been little or no value in the bluebell as a herb; it was not used for medicinal or curative purposes although it did have symbolism so far as birth and springtime re-generation were concerned. The poets loved it and went into raptures when it appeared in our woodlands, some referring to the noise the stems made when the wind caused them to rub against one another, and others referring either to the brilliant haze of blue or the faint honey-like scent produced by the flowers.
In thinking about bluebells and their future, what are the alexanders which are posing such a threat? This odd name is given to a plant which is a member of the parsley family and whose origins are in Macedonia, home of Alexander the Great. It is named after him. The flowers, which are a dull greenish-yellow, are very like those of other wild parsley plants. In this country, it can grow to a height of almost five feet and colonises wild open spaces, particularly near the coast.
At one time it was cultivated but it no longer appeals as a source of food. Nonetheless, every part of the plant is edible, the leaves producing a fine sauce and the stems being rather like asparagus. The flower buds were used in salads and the roots were often a substitute for parsnip. It was also valued as a herb, its uses including a cure for flatulence and snake-bite!
Removing alexanders from areas needed by our bluebells is just one chore during May which is the Environment Month in the Year of the Volunteer. Volunteers are being sought for similar tasks this year and details can be found on the Year of the Volunteer website, or by ringing Paul Donohoe on 020 7812 0037.