The magic of Suffolk’s bluebells

Bluebells at Bradfield Wood by Steve Aylward
Bluebells at Bradfield Wood by Steve Aylward
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Now appearing in nodding carpets in Bradfield Woods and Arger Fen, they are a sight older than memory; a lavender mist that has clung to our land since the wildwoods sprung up and the ice shrunk back.

It’s little wonder then that the bluebell, which is probably one of the best known wild flowers in Britain, is also connected to numerous myths. According to legend, anyone who hears the sad song of the bluebell’s ring will die. It is a flower of beauty but also of danger; a bloom with the power to summon kidnapping fairies or induce the ageless sleep of Endymion; a poetic symbol of solitude and deadly enchantment.

Even scientists, it seems, fell under the bluebells’ spell. Its Latin name Hyacinthoides non-scripta, means the unwritten-on hyacinth and is said to relate to another myth – the accidental death of Hyakinthos at the hand of Apollo. The common hyacinth is said to have marks on its petals corresponding to the Greek god’s cries of woe; something missing on the English bluebell.

Of course, it is possible such gloomy associations may simply be due to the flower’s toxicity. The poisonous bulb, once ground to produce a sticky gum to bind books and mend arrows, was favoured by alchemists and is now the subject of slightly more scientific research into possible medicinal uses.

Nowadays, of course, it is not so much the risks posed by bluebells (supernatural or otherwise) that is of concern but rather the threats posed to them. More than 70% of native bluebells are found in broadleaved woodland or scrub, a habitat system that is under intense pressure from development. Furthermore sheep and cattle can cause considerable harm by grazing, while muntjac deer have been known to chew bluebells down to the ground.

But it is another alien species – the Spanish bluebell – that is proving a more pervasive threat to this iconic wild woodland bloom. Introduced in the UK hundreds of years ago and found in many gardens, these bigger, paler plants are interbreeding with the native species to create a hybrid that could eventually lead to the extinction of the English bluebell.

Thankfully in this part of Suffolk there are still strongholds for the bluebell. Walking through the breath-taking sea of flowers that surround the ancient coppices of Bradfield Woods near Bury St Edmunds and lap across Arger Fen & Spouse’s Vale near Sudbury it is still possible to feel the old magic of a genuinely wild landscape. It is a sight that makes the thought of enraging the odd fairy a risk well worth taking.

To find out where bluebells are flowering near you see