April is the month when massed groups of bluebells astound us with their gently nodding flowers creating an intense blue carpet within woodlands. As the last of these quintessentially English flowers fade away, we can look back at what has been a particularly good year for them. The residents of Wanstead are fortunate to be able to see a fine display of bluebells within Wanstead Park where they can wonder at this springtime spectacle in Chalet Wood and some other locations nearby. Bluebells are best viewed from a path, as their leaves are easily damaged by trampling. Within Chalet Wood certain areas have been kept free of brambles by members of the Wren Conservation Group, and the paths edged with tree branches, so the flowers could be seen at their best.
The English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta is widespread throughout the countryside mainly in long established woodlands, but it can be found along the base of hedgerows too. Its presence in woodland is an indication that the wood is likely to be an ancient one, established before 1600. Bluebells dislike dense shade, thriving best in situations where some sunlight filters through the overhead canopy before the leaves are fully formed. They need the light to produce more individual flowers per spike. More flowers mean more seed capsules can be formed and thus more potential plants in new locations.
The majority of bluebell flowers open sometime in April, the exact date of maximum flowering being dependent on the ambient temperature. Viewing them on a warm sunny spring day, when their delicate perfume attracts bees and other flying insects is a memory to treasure. The majority of flowers are blue, but occasionally pink or white ones appear. There are 5 to 12, or sometimes a few more, flowers per spike. All hang down in one direction with six sharply recurved fluted edges to the narrow bell like flowers. The expanding sharp pointed narrow leaves can push their way through the decaying mat of last autumn’s fallen leaves.
As an easily recognised plant it has many alternative names such as crake feet, crow bells, fairy flower, harebell, wild hyacinth and wood bells. Some of these suggest a mystical side to these enchanting flowers.
If you wish to include bluebells in your garden, growing them from seed is possible, but the bulbs do take four years to mature. Alternatively bulbs can be bought from a reputable supplier and planted 8cm deep in autumn in moderately fertile, humus-rich, well-drained soil that does not dry out. The price of bulbs varies considerably, so do compare prices and check that the bulbs are the English bluebell and not the Spanish bluebell which has much more open flowers with blue anthers and no perfume.
The Spanish bluebell was introduced into this country in the 1680s. Many gardens do have large clumps of the Spanish bluebell as this plant has more showy flowers and larger leaves than the native species. However, it spreads easily and gardeners dig up these unwanted plants and dump them on waste ground where they become established. Various pollinating insects spread pollen from these to the flowers of the English bluebell and the resulting hybrid seeds are fertile. These hybrid bluebells are spreading into the margins of our established bluebell woods, although surveys do suggest that for the moment, the native species is still the dominant one. Like many garden plants, bluebells require an association with a soil dwelling symbiotic fungus which helps this plant to grow well.
Bluebells are toxic to humans and very few insects actually eat them too, so they are largely bug free plants! However, there are a couple of minute caterpillars associated with bluebells, one species eats the flowers and the other eats the seeds. They turn into small moths less than 17mm in length. Neither of these moths has been recorded for the Wanstead area yet, but they are easily overlooked as they are so small. If you are interested in learning more about moths, take a look at some stunning photographs of those found locally at www.wanteadwildlife.org.
Bluebells have inspired poets and artists for many years, and each year the City of London arranges events to encourage creative local people with their artistic endeavours. Bluebells are so much part of our English spring and with some many so close by, do go down to the local woods next April to see them once again in all their glory.