Drought conditions playing havoc with bluebell season

Visitors to woodlands will have to get out quick to enjoy the seasonal show of bluebells as experts from the National Trust predict that they will have a short season this year, thanks to the exceptionally dry start to 2012.

The low winter rainfall means that bluebells could be smaller and less abundant this year, but the dry conditions could mean that those bluebells that do emerge will be-well scented.

Matthew Oates, a Naturalist for the National Trust, said: “The warm and dry weather of the last few weeks has sped up the flowering process for bluebells, but the absence of rain means that visitors will need to be quick to see them – it could be a short but sweet season for bluebells, and other classic spring plants like the primrose.

“The bluebell starts growing in January with its sole purpose to flower before the other woodland plants but in dry conditions the bluebell will flower less, will be less abundant and its growth will be stunted.

The Trust is asking people to monitor bluebell sightings through an interactive Bluebell Watch map at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bluebellwatch. 

The public are being invited to tweet the first part of their postcode and the hashtag #bluebellwatch to populate the map with sightings, photography and information on when the best time to see bluebells is.

 Matthew Oates continued: “The Bluebell Watch map will help us build up a clearer picture in real time of how bluebells are spreading across the country and will be a useful tool for anyone wanting to see these majestic carpets of blue stretching off into the distance.”

Normally bluebells peak in a Mexican wave effect across the country, starting in the south west fanning out across theUKbut dry and challenging springs can make them become more patchy and dependent on their location.

Bluebells depend on warm ground temperatures to help them grow and are normally, but not exclusively, found in old woodland, thick old hedges, bracken-covered hillsides and sea cliffs.

The National Trust is one of the most important organisations in the UK for bluebells as a quarter of the Trust’s woodland is ancient or semi-natural; the ideal habitats for bluebells to flourish.

In 2011 bluebells bloomed a couple of weeks earlier than usual following the mildest February in nearly a decade and a majestic April, while in 2010 bluebells were emerging up to three weeks late in some parts of the country after the coldest winter for more than 30 years.

Half of the world’s population of bluebells can be found in the UK. UK bluebells are currently at risk of disappearing as a result of hybridizing with the scentless non-native Spanish bluebell which were often planted in gardens.

High energy bulbs that will light up your spring

Garden adviser, Ian Wright extols the wonder of the snowdrop and the bluebell.

To me snowdrops and bluebells are ‘the’ iconic flowers of early and late spring.

Barely have we taken the Christmas tree to be recycled then the brave little snowdrop is either well above ground or perhaps even in flower.  But what we don’t ever do is ever get down on the ground and really appreciate the tiny snowdrop bud.

I admit that a carpet of white is a spectacular sight but why not this year take a small mirror, get down on your knees, and carefully place it under the snowdrop.  Only then will you appreciate the subtleness of this spring bulb – I promise you that the attractive flower with its delicate green, and in some cases yellow, tinges will show itself to you in a whole new light.

Lots of our gardens, particularly Lacock and Trengwainton, have great displays, so go and kneel in honour of this brave little plant the snowdrop.

Then, just as the snowdrop’s light is fading, another favourite is rampaging up through the woodland floor ready to light up the second part of spring.

The bluebell is steeped in mystical folklore.  Are fairies really summoned by the ringing of its bells?  If you hear the bell does that mean your sudden demise?  Or does wearing a wreath of flowers means you can only speak the truth?  Even the nineteenth-century Romantic poets Tennyson and Keats were under the spell of the bluebell, believing it symbolised regret and solitude.  I say nonsense!  This bulb is a true symbol of the fantastic beauty of nature.

Again, you are spoilt for choice as to where to go and get your yearly bluebell fix.  My favourite, but keep it a secret, is Lanhydrock.  Do the same as with the snowdrop and get the mirror out for new perspective.  If you stare hard enough hopefully the intense blue will stay locked in your memory until next year.

Look out for the 3 cornered leek…

Our gardening team at the much loved holiday home of Agatha Christie, Greenway, are currently engaged in a battle to protect the stunning bluebells of this romantic woodland garden from an aggressive weed, threatening its habitat.

Unwelcome and very invasive, the Three Cornered Leek, or Three Cornered Garlic as it is also known, is similar in appearance to a white Bluebell, but with a distinctive smell and a narrow green stripe down the centre of each petal.

Andrew Midgley, Gardens Manager for the National Trust English Riviera says ‘Pretty as they are, the three cornered leeks are a very invasive and just a very unwelcome guest in our gardens. We are trying to contain them through careful management such as strimming.  Although they look very nice at the moment; this is only for a short period of time, after that they revert to their tired looking leaves and strong onion or garlic smell. Greenway’s display of bluebells this year have been praised by visitors as one of the best in the South West.

Greenway is particularly rich in colour at this time of year with a magnificent display of rhododendrons and azaleas coming into flower due to the warm spring weather, it’s a great time to visit’, so when you do keep an eye open for the dastardly 3 cornered leek!

England without bluebells?

…it would be like cancelling spring and going straight to summer! Can anything actually beat walking through a bluebell wood on a warm spring day with all your senses in total overdrive?

Wander down to a wood in April or early May and it’s likely that you’ll be confronted by a wonderful sight. A carpet of blue will stretch out into the distance with a scene full of delicate, fragile flowers. A bluebell wood in full flower is a true assault on your senses.

For generations bluebell woods have captured the public’s imagination and they have become the perfect symbol of the beauty and seasonality of our world. They are emblematic of new life and remain a real crowd pleaser: a time for celebration and joy.

Bluebells are usually at their best during mid morning, making it a great time to visit when you get the softer dappled light on a sunny day and their scent wafting through the air. Look also for the changes in colour from the rich dark blue when they are at their youngest and freshest, to the softer almost pale blue as they begin to fade away as the summer months draw nearer.

This is nature at its best and a quintessential sight in the spring months. It’s a sign that the days are getting longer and warmer.

As our climate has gradually become milder the first bluebells began to get earlier every year. In west Cornwall they could even be spotted in March thanks to frost-free winters and the milder nature of the west country. It would be late April or even early May before the rest of us could marvel at these lovely bluebells as they force their way through the soil stretching tall and proud towards the warm spring air.

The bluebell starts growing in the previous autumn, its sole purpose to flower before other woodland plants. This means that it’s free from competition, attracting the early spring pollinators. But cold weather can slow its clock down. Not only will the bluebell then have to compete with other ground flora but also shade from above in the form of trees coming into to leaf, preventing sunlight reaching the forest floor.

To help us keep up to speed with the bluebell season, the National Trust has set up Bluebell Watch as a way to provide updates on when the bluebells are at their best. Wardens and gardeners are sending in their sightings of the first bluebells as they appear and will be keeping a close eye on the peak time for bluebells; they’re normally at their best for one week.

The blue haze of bluebells has also begun to appear at National Trust woods from the gardens at Agatha Christie’s former holiday home on the banks of river Dart in Devon.

Woods in the UK really do matter globally for bluebells. Half of the world’s population of English bluebells can be found on these shores but their future remains uncertain.

Climate is important for bluebells but they are also struggling to cope with another threat so common for many different species of British wildlife – invasive species.

Spanish bluebells, a more cultivated form of bluebell, are normally found in our towns and cities in gardens and parks. Yet this welcome splash of colour in urban areas is putting the future of native bluebells at real risk. A blend of the English and Spanish bluebells has created a virulent hybrid that is difficult to distinguish from our own true bluebell.

In the meantime, use the arrival of this year’s fleeting bluebells as the perfect excuse to spend time in a nearby wood – and share the resulting photographs with the rest of the world.

Oh! Roses and lilies are fair to see;

But the wild bluebell is the flower for me. Louisa A. Meredith

National Trust bluebell wood

Imagine yourself here, walking along this path on the Godolphin estate in west Cornwall… Kathy Doyle posted from Godolphin last year: 'I can see the very first flowers starting to come through, very exciting, still awaiting the grand show.'

There’s something about bluebell time, isn’t there? Those rolling carpets of purpley-blue under new beech leaves, that sweet fresh green scent, bring a spring to your step and a feeling that winter is past. The Trust looks after some of the country’s most important bluebell woods; a quarter of the woodland we own is ancient or semi-natural – the perfect environment for our native bluebells to flourish in.

The first appearance of the flowers is keenly awaited and anticipated, but whether it’s going to be mid-April or mid-May depends on all kinds of factors such as how cold the winter has been and whereabouts in the country you are. This is why the Trust gives a helping hand with its online Bluebell Watch. Keep an eye on the Trust’s website from late March onwards, and you will start to see updates from staff at gardens and woodlands throughout the South West letting you know where are the best places to see bluebells this spring. You can also follow updates on our Twitter page and our South West blog, and upload your favourite bluebell photos.

A glance through last year’s Bluebell Watch postings shows that the first in the country was made by Andrew Wrayford, warden at Buckland Abbey in the sheltered Tavy Valley, who wrote on 14 April: ‘I spotted the first few bluebells out yesterday – follow our “Blue Walk” to see them…’. He was followed two days later by Mike Hardy, warden on the Lizard, who had seen them on the Penrose estate, near Helston: ‘The first flowers are finally showing today, in full sunshine but still with a chilly easterly wind. Will they all be in full bloom for Flora Day, Helston’s celebration of the arrival of spring on 8 May? The clock is ticking…’.

Ode to the Bluebell by Ian Wright, Garden Adviser for Devon and Cornwall

England without bluebells? It would be like cancelling spring and going straight to summer! Can anything actually beat walking through a bluebell wood on a warm spring day with all your senses in total overdrive?

But for the bluebell, that time of glory is the commutation of months of preparation, much of it going on unseen. The bluebell starts to grow in the late summer, hidden away underground, its clock ticking towards spring. The bluebell’s sole aim is to set its flowers before other plants that are more temperature-dependant can compete, and before the tree canopy above shades out the forest floor.

You would be mistaken if you thought this iconic plant of spring is untouchable. It faces real challenges in the form of climate change which may give other plants a chance to compete at the same time or even losing its unique identity by hybridising with its invasive Spanish cousin.

But for all this, the bluebell remains one of our real champions of spring, so I urge you to make the effort to go and visit a wood near you, and stand still in awe at nature’s sheer beauty.