Bluebells and ancient woodland

Bluebells aren’t just pretty, they can be useful too.

Feb 24 2022

Illustration of bluebells.

The common bluebell (or Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is one of our most recognisable and beloved species. Although it can be found across much of western Europe, the perennial plant grows most densely in woodlands across the UK. Bluebells spend most of the year underground as a bulb, all emerging in spring to flower and dying off again in early summer.

Bluebells are one of the main biological indicators that scientists use to judge whether a spot is an ancient woodland. An ancient woodland is an area of woods that has been recorded on a map since the year 1600 CE. That’s approximately when maps started being more accurate, so we know that these areas have been filled with trees for approximately 400 years. They are relatively undisturbed by human development and, as a result, foster unique and complex communities of natural life. Like the spectacular carpet of delicate bluebell flowers that can be found across the woodlands of Hampshire.

A wood with a covering of bluebells.

But bluebells aren’t just pretty, they can be useful too. Records show that in the medieval period the bulb of a bluebell was sometimes crushed up and used as a form of glue for bookbinding and arrow making. Bluebells are quite poisonous, a property useful in bookbinding as they prevented pests from destroying the books. We wouldn’t recommend trying to make bluebell glue now though as bluebells are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The act makes it illegal to remove the bulbs of wild bluebells, and anyone selling the bulbs or seeds could face a fine of up to £5,000. Preserving such spectacular displays of purple flowers today means that these complex ecosystems can continue to thrive and the sight of a bluebell covered woodland won’t become a thing of the past.

You can find bluebells planted in some of our curated borders and growing naturally throughout the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens this spring. A great way to enjoy one of the nation’s favourite flowers while leaving ancient woodland undisturbed.