Bluebells… Woodland Belles
by Flo Whitaker
Sussex is renowned for its magnificent displays of native bluebells. Take a picnic, a camera and get out into the wild blue yonder!
A deciduous woodland in April, with its bright green leaf canopy arching over a sea of fragrant bluebells, is a sight that’s hard to beat. The native bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) occurs throughout northern Europe, but the British Isles is the bluebell’s stronghold – approximately 50% of its global population can be found here. They are tough and tolerant plants, but prefer rich, damp soil, so thrive in our Wealden clay. Native bluebells are protected under law. It’s illegal to damage or collect them from the wild – leave them for other folk to enjoy.
Bluebells have been around for at least 10,000 years – since the last ice age, maybe earlier. Our ancestors knew all about them and harnessed three curious properties that have made bluebells useful to humans throughout the ages. The watery ‘juice’ within the bulbs is incredibly sticky. Applied to surfaces, then pressed together, the sap dries clear, making an invisible and extremely strong bond. Bronze Age people fixed feathersto their hunting spears in order that the spears would fly more accurately. The feathers were secured using twine and bluebell sap – Bronze Age superglue!
The term ‘fashion victim’ is nothing new. The ruff started life as a simple drawstring-gathered shirt neckline, but by the time those bling-crazed Elizabethans had finished, it was a preposterous12 inches wide and used several yards of highly starched fabric in its construction. Matching starched cuffs were de rigueur. The whole ensemble rendered eating, drinking and talking virtually impossible. And what was the magic starching ingredient? Bluebell sap! Fabrics were soaked in a dilution of bluebell juice and water, then pressed into shape using hot iron rods.
Bluebell sap was also used in the production of books; painted onto pages to stiffen and reinforce, also as an adhesive on spines and covers. Which brings us to their third property – all parts of the bluebell are poisonous. With bluebell glue, bookbinders not only had an excellent adhesive substance, they also knew that rats and mice would be deterred from gnawing the pages. In the home, bluebell juice was rubbed onto larder shelf edges and cupboard doors to protect foodstuffs from vermin.
Herbalists have mostly steered well clear of bluebells, although the sap has been used for its anti-hemorrhagic properties. Supernatural woodland fairies have no such earthly concerns and are often depicted with bluebells. According to folklore, a human may summon a fairy creature by ringing a bluebell, but great care must be taken – mere mortals require a very good reason to disturb the fairy realm. The sound of tolling bluebells means that a human death has occurred; which is a pertinent reminder of their toxicity. If you’ve been gardening and handling bluebells – wash your hands!