Bluebell woods

If you are lucky enough to live near a woodland and take your daily exercise there, you may well have noticed a carpet of blue emerging in the last week or two, as one of our most iconic and treasured wild flowers has come in to bloom.  If you don’t have access to woods, then hopefully the images and poetry we share here will give you a little feeling of this special Spring spectacle in your own home.

Ancient woodland

The delicate British bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is the flower of St George as it usually comes in to bloom in late April (around 23rd, St George’s Day), and parts of the arboretum – like many other woodlands – are currently awash in a sea of blue.  The flower is considered an indicator of ancient woodland (woodland that has existed for over 400 years).

Native and non-native species

Our native flower is commonly mixed up with the introduced (and invasive) Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the crossbreed hybrids that they produce.  One key difference is that the Spanish variety has a straight upright stem, whereas our native woodland favourite droops to one side . Another is that the bells grow from one side of the stem of British bluebells (causing the droop), but from all around the stem on the Spanish variety. Find out more about differentiating between the two here – 

Under threat

The issue of invasive species, as well as the loss, mismanagement and destruction of woodland, means that the bluebell is under threat. Furthermore it is a plant that is slow to grow and spread, and slow to recover from damage, like trampling.  As such it is a protected species.

Fairies and folklore

The violet hue that spreads across woodland floors when bluebells come in to bloom en masse is so ethereal that it is no wonder these flowers have long been associated with fairies and enchantment.  Folklore has it that the ring of the ‘bells’ calls fairies to gather, but any human who hears that ring will die (so don’t listen out too hard when you go to the woods!). Trampling or picking the flowers, or even just entering the woods, could lead you to be trapped in a fairy underworld.  So take care out there!

The beauty of a bluebell woods, and some of the dark mythology surrounding the flower are hinted at in this poem from The Lost Words: A Spell Book by authors Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.


Blue flowers at the blue hour –

Late-day light in a bluebell wood.

Under branch, below leaf,

billows blue so deep, sea-deep,

Each step is taken in an ocean.

Blue flows at the blue hour:

colour is current, undertow.

Enter the wood with care, my love,

Lest you are pulled down by the hue,

Lost in the depths, drowned in blue.

This ‘spell’ and accompanying artwork are reproduced here with kind permission from Robert and Jackie. On hearing ‘Bluebell’ performed by composer Kerry Andrew at the Hay winter festival, Folk by the Oak festival was inspired to commission the musical companion piece ‘Spell Songs’. 

Restoration success

Seeing the blue carpet at Tortworth this Spring is a reminder of the real and tangible impact that our restoration work is having. Five years ago you could barely enter the arboretum, let alone see bluebells shooting up. Five years of volunteer days, hard graft, and grazing goats has uncovered the woodland floor from bramble and rhododendron, allowing the light to come in and the wildflowers to thrive again.  Thank you to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, whose grant is enabling our important restoration work to continue in the arboretum for 2 years.