Bluebells – The Gorgeous, yet Poisonous, Enchantress

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Bluebell flowers are often associated with fairy lore. Their exquisite beauty and poisonous nature may have been the seeds that germinated fantastic tales and warnings regarding these plants. (Image: Charlie Marshall via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is a bulbous perennial plant that belongs to the Liliaceae (Lily) family. Commonly called Fairy flowers, English Bluebells, Wood bells, and Wild hyacinth, bluebells are one of the most easy-to-recognize protected woodland flowers in the world. 

Bluebells are mainly found in the Western regions of Atlantic Europe, ranging from north-western Spain to the Netherlands and the British Isles. However, 70 percent of all common bluebells are found in Britain. Throughout the months of April and May. The Ancient Woodlands, affectionately known as “Bluebell Woods,” are characterized by a profusion of the nodding heads of Bluebell blossoms. 

Five years are required for a bluebell seed to mature into a bulb. Bluebells develop in racemes, or clusters of flowers connected by a pedicel. Each raceme has around 20 blooms. The plant forms buds while in an upright position. In bloom, the stalk bends and the flowers droop to the side (often the south). 

Bluebells typically grow in wooded areas and along the countryside, forming a tapestry of majestic blue that can stretch for miles. (Image: Richard Walker via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The flowers are mostly blue, but may vary from white to light blue, lavender and pink. Every spring, underground bulbs produce a magnificent display of bluebells in forests and throughout the countryside along hedgerows, marshes and meadows. Early blooming bluebells attract a broad range of insects, including woodland butterflies, bees, and hoverflies.

Following the blooming of fertile flowers, fruit appears in the form of papery capsules with three lobes, each of which contains seeds. Immature fruits are green, ripening to a light brown and opening up. The small black seeds then drop out and germinate naturally on the ground.

Myths and magic

In Greek myth, Hyacinthus was a handsome and brave young man who drew Apollo’s attention. Apollo inadvertently killed Hyacinthus and a hyacinth bloomed where his blood fell. Apollo’s falling tears, supposedly spelled out AI AI (meaning “Alas!”) on the flower petals. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who formalized the system of binomial nomenclature, saw that there were no such letters visible on the petals, and thus assigned the mysterious name “non scripta” (unlettered) to the bluebell flower.

Bluebells have been said to summon fairies. A bluebell could be “rung” like a regular bell, and the fairies would come running to greet you. Concerning  Bluebells, however, fairy lore has some rather strict warnings. It is suggested that you walk with care and maintain your composure in a bluebell forest, lest you become disoriented by the intoxicating fragrance and become lost.

Fairy lore cautions against picking bluebells. Since the plant is poisonous, it would be wise to heed this advice. In fact, the bulbs can be easily mistaken for ramsons, or wild garlic; so the warning that you might never leave if you ate anything within the wood might also be worth considering.

Apparently, the fairies hold that it is permissible to pluck one flower and request good luck, after which you may place it  in your shoe. If nothing else, at least you will have sweet-smelling toes!

Flipping a bluebell inside out without breaking it is said to bring forth your soulmate, while bluebells planted near your front entrance are supposed to bring good luck, since they will chime to warn you if someone unexpected comes.

Cultural significance

Adding to their prominence in mythology and tradition, Bluebells have also been featured in art and literature symbolizing solitude and yearning. In Emily Bronte’s poem “The Bluebell,” she describes the beauty of a Bluebell wood, the lack of color in the blooms during winter, and how the flowers’ reappearance in the spring makes her long for her home in the countryside.

English painters have been inspired by the charm of Bluebell landscapes. Artist Jack Wiggins captured the charm of  Springtime’s sunlight-dappled Bluebell meadows in his paintings of the Bluebell Woods, which make viewers yearn for the warmth of Spring. As observed by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, bluebells were ‘all hanging their heads one way.’ 

Floriography, or flower language, was very popular in the Victorian period. It’s a secret language where each flower has its own meaning, and communication is achieved through flower arrangements. Bluebells were associated with the expression of feelings and thoughts. For the same reason that bluebells seem to bend humbly when they tip down on their flower spikes, Bluebells symbolize kindness, humility, and constancy, and pink bluebells represent everlasting love and devotion.

Practical applications

Bluebells have historically been used for a number of practical purposes. Their toxic sap was formerly employed to bind the pages of books and prevent insects from snacking on them. The sticky glue was also used to fasten feathers to arrows. 

Bluebell bulbs were crushed to create starch for the ruffs of collars and sleeves worn by the Elizabethans during the Tudor period. 

Because of their toxicity, bluebells have had limited use in contemporary medicine until recently. It was revealed that their bulbs contain diuretic (increases urination) and styptic (helps to stop bleeding) components. Research into how these flowers may be able to help fight HIV and cancer is still in its early stages. In the Middle Ages, Bluebells were thought to cure leprosy, consumption, snake and spider bites. 

Threats to bluebells

While the bluebell is still common in Britain, it is endangered by habitat destruction, non-native bluebell hybridization and illegal bulb trafficking. Damage from trampling may take years to repair, and crushed leaves might prevent the photosynthesis of Bluebells. 

Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) protects bluebells. According to this Act, landowners are prohibited from digging bluebells to sell, as Schedule 8 of the Act forbids commerce in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds. 

  • Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.