Every April an indigo carpet unfolds across London’s ancient woodlands as the capital’s bluebells flower.
Their appearance in early spring allows them to make the most of the sunlight that still makes it to the forest floor, and their heady, sweet scent is quick to attract pollinating insects such as bumblebees and butterflies, in search of nutritious nectar.
Bluebells like the dappled light of an overhead tree canopy of oak and hazel and in the right conditions will carpet a woodland floor in their hundreds of thousands, but can also be spotted in hedgerows, parks and gardens. Once known as the fairy flower, wood bell and Ring-o’-Bells, their sap used to be collected to stick feathers to arrow shafts and as a glue for book-binding.
In popular woods the bluebell can be sensitive to trampling but stunning displays can still be seen across London, with perhaps the finest examples in west London’s Perivale Wood, Selsdon Wood near Croydon and Duck Wood in north Havering. Enjoy the display but don’t collect any bulbs — it’s illegal and they need our protection.
The bluebell regularly tops polls as the nation’s favourite flower but there is a challenger to our native plant: the Spanish bluebell. It is a bolder beast, with paler flowers and the scent not unlike old onions, and is now intermixing with the native bluebell. Despite this intruder, Britain still supports about half the global population of the “English” bluebell, and their stunning display is seldom seen elsewhere.
Perhaps a much greater threat than the Spanish bluebell is our own lack of interest in the natural world. In 2015 the word bluebell was quietly removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, along with words such as acorn, buttercup and conker, to make way for digital newcomers such as broadband, blog and chatroom.
The London Wildlife Trust campaigns to protect the capital's wildlife and wild spaces. It is backed by Sir David Attenborough, President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts.