Bluebells at Ightham Mote

A swathe of bluebells beneath the trees in Scathes Wood

After the winter, the bluebells in Scathes Wood on the Ightham Mote estate are a sight not to be missed. Not only do they provide a delightful splash of colour, but they're also an important early source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.

From the end of April to early May, a carpet of sapphire blue flowers stretches out before you underneath the dappled shade of ancient trees. They're an important and essential part of our natural heritage, and a welcome sign that spring is well under way and the warmer days of summer are not far off. But they're in danger from an alien invader, and well-meaning one's closer to home.

 

Native bluebells are fragile

When you see them each year, faithfully pushing through the old leaf litter on sturdy stalks in their hundreds, it’s hard to believe they’re actually a fragile flower. They don’t like change or disturbance, preferring ancient woods where the ground has lain undisturbed for years.

Our gardening forefathers were aware of the difficult nature of native bluebells and introduced the more hardy Spanish Bluebell to their gardens around 300 years ago. However, Spanish bluebells did not remain in gardens and over the years have begun to hybridise with native flowers, producing tougher plants with dominant genes. 

The main visible difference between the varieties is that native bluebells are slightly smaller, have narrow leaves, drooping heads, a violet bell-shaped flower and a delicate but distinctive fragrance. Spanish bluebells are wider-leaved, stand erect and have no scent. Their flowers have less of a bell and are a more ‘hyacinth’ blue.

 

Enjoy them with respect

To most of us, however, a gorgeous spread of bluebells is an irresistible sight in spring. To show our appreciation, it’s the most tempting thing in the world to step into the blue for a photo opportunity, however, your feet could be doing more damage than you realise.

Bluebells have soft, succulent leaves that are particularly sensitive to being trodden on. Once the leaves are damaged, they are unable to absorb the sun and photosynthesise so they die back. In turn, this means they can’t put food back into their bulbs, reducing their ability to produce flowers and seeds.

You see it in popular bluebell woods where narrow tracks made by one person soon become wider and the bluebells end up in island-like patches instead of the blue carpet we all love.

Another reason to stick to designated paths in bluebell woods is that the bulbs become damaged when the soil is compacted from the weight of footfall.

As long as we treat them with respect, we’ll be able to enjoy our blue woodlands for many years to come.