You might think a swathe of bluebells is a wonderful sight, but as Pip Webster reveals all is not as it seems
Watch out for stunning flora and fauna... it could actually be poisonous
In late spring deciduous woodlands seem to erupt in a haze of blue as if “the heavens upbreaking through the earth” (Alfred Tennyson). Like many spring flowers, the English Bluebell produces its leaves and flowers early before the leaves on the trees block the sunlight. One of the nation’s favourite flowers, the blue carpets are quintessentially British, the UK being home to about half the world population.
With its nodding, one-sided inflorescence of tubular violet-blue flowers, “there is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell” (Anne Bronte). The three inner and three outer petals unfold near the end and curve tightly backwards upon themselves. Not satisfied with our native, sweetly scented beauty, gardeners introduced the paler, hardier Spanish Bluebell in the seventeenth century and it now hybridises in the wild with our own bluebell, threatening its survival. The racemes of flowers are more upright in the Spanish bluebell, with wide, bell-shaped flowers, only slightly flared at the edges, on both sides of the stem. The pollen is white, contrasting the blue of our native.
The Bluebell is extremely poisonous and found many uses in medieval alchemy and folk medicine. The watersoluble alkaloids may provide clues for modern drug manufacture. The sap is very sticky and was used to glue feathers onto arrows in the Middle Ages, and, archaeological studies suggest, possibly as early as the Bronze Age. Also used to stick the pages into books, the glue had the added advantage of being insecticidal. Starch from the bulbs of ‘Jacinth’ was used to stiffen ruffs in Elizabethan times. Bluebells are an important early source of food for bees, hoverflies and butterflies that feed on the nectar. The majority of the pollination is carried out by bumblebees, but they sometimes cheat and access the nectar by biting a hole in the base of the bell. As the flowers wither and seeds set, the stems become more upright and produce 3 black seeds in each 3-lobed seed pod.
A swift arrow of iridescent blue speeding low over the water is all most of us see of a Kingfisher. Barely bigger than a house sparrow, their stumpy body, large head, short tail and long, daggershaped beak all distinguish what must be the most brilliantly coloured British bird, though they are often overlooked when sitting motionless, perched on a post or branch over the water. The instant a fish is spotted the Kingfisher dives headlong into the water and grabs its prey with its open beak – a skill requiring lots of practice and excellent eyesight. Minnows
may be immediately swallowed head first, but spiny fish like sticklebacks are beaten against the perch until they are dead. Adults usually catch a fish every two or three dives.
After a solitary winter, Kingfishers have usually paired up by mid-February and established their nest territory. You can spot the female by the red base to her lower mandible. The selected nest site is usually quite high in an exposed bank of a stream or lake where the pair excavate a gently upsloping tunnel with a chamber at the end of it. About 7 eggs are laid in each brood, and there may be 2 or even 3 broods in the season between the end of March and early July. If you can find a nest it is an excellent place to watch the parent Kingfishers busy flying in and out with fish for the young. The accumulation of fish bones and regurgitated pellets, not to mention the youngsters’ excrement, make such a mess of the tunnel and chamber that the adults have to take a quick diving bath every time they leave the nest!
The Greeks knew the Kingfisher as “Halcyon” and the generic name “Alcedo” derives from that. Halcyon days originally described calm winter days at sea – but we would all enjoy some halcyon days this spring with lots of blue skies.
The characteristic ‘one-sided’ native English bluebell stem