by Ian Brand

I ALWAYS make a date to visit one of our beautiful local bluebell woods; why not do the same, but be quick as the flowers disappear as quickly as they arrive!

Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) transform our woodlands in springtime. That carpet of intense blue under the opening canopy is one of our greatest woodland spectacles.

It is also a British speciality, with the UK home to 50 per cent of the world’s population and often indicates a site of ancient woodland. Bluebells propagate not by producing daughter bulbs like daffodils, but predominantly by seed. Each seed takes five years to grow into a flowering plant, with bulbs lasting up to 60 years.

Have you ever wondered, how they are in their flowering prime when so many other plants have only just started to grow? Bluebells have a number of tricks up their sleeves, including co-operation with fungi known as mycorrhiza. This allows them to extract phosphorous from the soil, important for growth, while at the same time depriving their competitors of this essential nutrient.

They also have an unusual way of storing their energy. Most plants use glucose and build starch or cellulose. Bluebells predominantly convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water by photosynthesis into fructose and build fructans (a chain or polymer of fructose molecules). This adaptation allows bluebells to photosynthesise at temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius. The bulb comprises of 70 per cent fructans, which then fuels its early growth in late winter.

However, despite all these tricks, our native bluebells are under threat, not from the Spanish Bluebell as most people believe, but the love child or hybrid between its British and Spanish parents. Like some children, it has caused problems. The hybrid bluebell was first recorded in the UK in 1963 and having “hybrid vigour” has spread quickly and enabled it to out-compete our native bluebells, diluting their gene pool, in a process known as a “hybrid swarm”.

Bluebells are poisonous if eaten and contain about 15 biologically active compounds to defend themselves from animals and insect pests. Scientists are now actively researching theses toxic chemicals to see if any can be used to treat cancer.

However, our ancestors found plenty of uses. The sticky bluebell sap was used to bind pages to the spines of books, and stiffen the ruffs of Elizabethan collars and sleeves. As far back as the Bronze Age, people were using the sap to set feathers upon arrows, known as fletching.

Finally until next month, continue to enjoy those magnificent spring flowers.