Bells in the woods in Hertfordshire

As the forest floors turn blue, the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust takes a look at one of nature's most beautiful flowers

BLOOMING from the beginning of April to a peak in mid May, bluebells give us the most striking confirmation that early summer is on its way.

Woods are particularly attractive in the springtime because many woodland plants flower early, before the leaves in the tree canopy above them open fully and start to cast a dense shade on the woodland floor.

Bluebells are amongst those that take full advantage of that ‘window’ of light to create their riot of colour and attract those all-important insect visitors.

Here are 10 things you might not know about the humble bluebell.1. Spectacular displays of this botanical beauty are found only in northern Europe, with Britain containing more than half of the world’s population

2. Far from finding a carpet of bluebells to be a jolly and uplifting sight, the 19th-century romantic poets believed that the plant symbolised solitude and regret. Bluebells have inspired generations of poets, including Robert Burns, John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins

3. The juice and the ground bulb of the plant have been used as a substitute for starch and bluebell juice has been suggested as a cure for snake-bites

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4. The bluebell’s alternative names include wild hyacinth, wood hyacinth, bellflower (although this is in fact another species found in grassland habitats – flowering much later in the year), Virginia cowslip and Crawtraes (meaning crow’s toes)

5. Deciduous woodlands left in a semi-natural state or managed in ways which benefit wildlife (such as coppicing) provide great habitats for bluebells. Although bluebells usually require well-drained soil, some grow in wet woodland adjacent to the rivers. It takes at least five years for a seed to grow into a bulb

6. Bluebells are an important early food flower for bees, hoverflies and butterflies and other nectar-feeders. Honey bees often bite a hole in the bottom of the bell – robbing the plant of its nectar without pollinating the flower

7. Bluebells are protected by law. It is illegal to dig them up or pick them. The biggest threats to bluebells are the destruction of woodlands in which they grow and gardeners who buy millions of bulbs (usually unwittingly) which have come from unsustainable sources – often taken illegally from their natural habitats

8. Introduced by gardeners, the Spanish bluebell is an additional threat – increasingly appearing in our woods and along country lanes. Larger than our bluebell, it hybridises with, and ultimately threatens, the survival of our smaller native plant. This could result in possibly sending our much loved and popular British bluebell into extinction

9. Our native bluebell has a gently bending stalk with flower bells on one side of the stalk. The bells are a deep blue colour and the stamens are white. Spanish bluebells are stronger, with an upright flower-stalk, the flower bells are produced all round the stem and the bells are a paler blue, often with even paler stripes

10. Spanish bluebells growing in gardens can multiply and become a nuisance. If you want to control their spread, lift and remove them but do not dispose of bulbs by adding them to the garden compost heap and never discard unwanted bulbs in the countryside. Consign them to a black plastic sack and leave for a year before composting.