At the beginning of May, the woodlands are carpeted with native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). The whole month of May is surrounded with magical tales of fairies, spirits of the land, emerging from their winter hideaways, and returning to the wild places. It blooms at a magical time, over Beltane at the start of summer, and forms part of the bouquets and garlands of May Queens and Kings.
The bluebell is said to chime at midnight to call fairies to their revels, but humans should beware – the flowers are so magically enchanted that adults who wander in a bluebell woods will be pixy-led, meaning that the fairies will cause them to lose their way and meander around until they are rescued, while children will be stolen by the fairies, and never be seen again. Where bluebells grow in oak woods, the flowers are a sign that they are haunted by Oakmen, tree spirits who guard the forests and the animals, and punish those who would harm them, such greedy foragers and foxhunters. They may appear as little old men who offer the traveller tempting food, which turns out to be poisonous fungi disguised by fairy glamour.
The cunning folk maintained that you should never pick wild bluebells as it angers the fairies, but they grow freely in the gardens of witches, and even their presence might lead to a suspicion of witchcraft. It is said that planting bluebells in the garden will attract fairies.
Britain has 20% of the world’s population of wild bluebells, though before forest clearances, this figure was much higher. Indeed, it was once the national flower of England, before this was changed to the rose. It has dozens of folk names, including Auld Man’s Bell, Ring-o’-Bells, Wood Bells, Nodding Squill, Jacinth, Witches Thimbles, Adder’s Flowers, Bloody Fingers and Cuckoo’s Boots. Ben Jonson called it the ‘fair-hair’d hyacinth’ as tradition associates the flower with the hyacinth of the ancients, which appears in the tale of Hyacinthus, a charming and handsome Spartan youth who was loved by both the sun god Apollo and Zephyrus, the god of the West Wind. One day, when Apollo was playing quoits with Hyacinthus, the god threw a quoit which jealous Zephyrus blew off course so that it struck and killed the boy. A grieving Apollo raised a flower from his fallen blood on which was written the Greek letter ‘a’, which indicates the sound of wailing. As the English variety of the flower has no trace of these letters, botanists called it Hyacinthus nonscriptus, or ‘not written on.’ Another of its old botanic names was Endymion, named after the woodland lover of Diana, the goddess of hunting.
In ancient Greece, the bluebell was associated with expulsion of evil and ill luck, as well as death and grieving. When hunting was scarce, or the domestic flocks and herds were faring badly, boys would beat the statue of Pan (god of flocks and nature) with bluebells, to rid him of whatever unlucky influence was present. In Mediaeval magic it was similarly connected with protection from evil, as it was claimed that a bluebell in the bedroom would keep away a succubus (a female spirit that preys sexually upon sleeping men in order to conceive a demon child).
Bluebells are an important early food flowers for bees, hoverflies and butterflies which feed on the nectar, while the bulbs are eaten by small mammals such as mice; some animals will dig up underground roots and bulbs for the starch they contain – look for “snuffle holes” where they have been nosing and clawing into the ground.
In Elizabethan times, commercial laundries used the sticky juice expelled from bluebell bulbs as a starch to stiffen the ruffs and lace that were so fashionable at the time. The herbalist Gerard reported that it made the best laundry starch after wake robin roots (Arum maculatum or Lords and Ladies), but that it was full of acid juices that blistered the hands of the laundresses. He also wrote that it was used by fletchers as a glue to fix feathers on arrows. William Turner, in his Herbal of 1568, wrote that ‘The boyes in Northumberland scrape the roote of the herbe and glew their arrows and bokes wyth that slyme that they scrape off’. You could try this by scraping the bulb with a knife, to gather a thick mucus to glue your magical books and spells, but please note that it is illegal to pick or use wild one – these must be from your garden.
Gerard described the flowers as having a strong, sweet smell ‘somewhat stuffing to the head’. The scent is spicy, like balsam or cinnamon; it contains cinnamic alcohol. Bluebells are not used by modern herbalists (they are poisonous) but they are coming under scrutiny by scientists screening a range of British plants to discover whether they contain substances of use in modern pharmaceutical drugs. They contain a wide spectrum of alkaloids, some of which have only previously been known in tropical plants.
I think the best thing to do with bluebells is just to appreciate them. The sight of bluebells blossoming tells us that summer is coming in, that the spirits of growth have returned to the land, that the God and Goddess have celebrated the greenwood marriage. They open our hearts to joy and renewal.
© Anna Franklin, May 2021
CAUTION: bluebells are poisonous. Do not ingest any part of them. Handling the bulbs can cause a skin reaction in some people.