COLUMN: Bask in the beauty of bluebells on a woodland walk

Bluebells. Photo by Jack Roper.
Bluebells. Photo by Jack Roper.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust manages many woodland nature reserves sympathetically for a range of spring flowers, from showy bluebells to delicate wood anemones, fragrant lily-of- the-valley to pretty primroses.

Here Julia Gow, Reserves Officer, tells us when and where to see bluebells in Derbyshire.

It’s early April and I have just returned from a visit to Hillbridge wood which is located in a valley between Buxton and Whaley Bridge. This beautiful woodland lies right next to the river Goyt and is a great haven for wildlife. I have been checking that all the fences are intact, as it’s important to

exclude the livestock that graze the adjacent fields, so that all the young trees within the woodland can continue to flourish.

Everywhere I go there are green shoots and the majority of them are narrow and shiny. It’s been a very long winter but at last everything is on the move and coming to life. Within a month the whole woodland will be a wonderful sea of blue, not sky blue or sea blue, but bluebell blue which has a distinctive purple haze. I am looking forward to next month, every year at the beginning of May I spend ten minutes sitting in the meadow in the middle of the woodland breathing in the honey scent of the bluebells and enjoying the atmosphere of the woodland. Amid the blue will be dots of white stitchwort, which come into flower at the same time. Occasionally there are also some white bluebells though these are not as common in Hillbridge Wood as in other woodlands.

Like many of our spring flowers bluebells grow from bulbs. Sometimes in areas where the badgers have been digging you can see some of the white bulbs thrown up to the surface. Badgers love earthworms above everything else but they are quite happy to munch on the occasional bluebell bulbs. Sometimes you can find half eaten bulbs amongst their foraging.

The leaves generally start to appear from February and you can sometimes find last autumn’s oak leaves lifted aloft or even penetrated by the new shoots. The leaves are surprising slippery. Later in the spring we check the 80 nest boxes at Hillbridge for pied flycatcher so that we can ring the young.

One of the principle hazards whilst doing this is slipping on the bluebell leaves which coat the steep banks.

The bell like flowers of bluebells occur mainly on one side of the stem and give the plant a nodding appearance. The tips of each flower are curled back, giving them a bit of a frilly look. Inside the flowers are cream pollen laden anthers.

Bluebells are primarily a woodland plant. The fertile soils created by decades of fallen leaves provide the ideal conditions for the bulbs. There are exceptions though. On a couple of reserves in Derbyshire bluebells grow out in the fields. At Rose End Meadows near Cromford the bluebells are followed by meadow flowers. There is a lovely bank of bluebells on the edge of the upland meadow at Long Clough. The soil here is much more acidic than that found at Rose End. At both these reserves there is a degree of shade which is another factor that the plants need. They also need a humid atmosphere to grow well.

About half of the bluebells on the planet are found in Britain. They are not as common as they once were, as many of the woodlands in which they were historically found no longer exist. Habitat destruction is the principle reason for the decline in these beautiful flowers.

At one time bluebells were picked commercially and this has also led to a reduction in numbers.

Commercial picking is now illegal. Studies have shown that it is leaf damage, rather than the removal of flowers that is far more destructive to the plant long term. The bluebell needs its leaves to create food for the bulb to store for the following years growth. If all the leaves are removed from a bulb it

won’t grow again.

A more recent treat is the Spanish bluebell. These plants have started escaping from people’s gardens and colonising nearby woodlands. They then start to hybridise with the local bluebells. The Spanish bluebell is not as elegant, it has flowers all-round the stem and much broader leaves. It also doesn’t have that heady scent.

Luckily the bluebells at Hillbridge are a good distance away from any gardens so the heady scent is still there. If you would like to visit them, the reserve has a public footpath running through it. It is located down the road from Taxal church. Alternatively you could book onto Derbyshire Wildlife

Trust’s guided walk on the evening of May 8.

In addition to Rose End, Lee Wood, Florence Nightingales old haunt is a good spot to seek out bluebells. If you are lucky the wild daffodils might still be in bloom too.

Probably the best place for bluebells in Derbyshire is right down in the south. It is Spring Wood nature reserve which is next to Staunton Harold reservoir. The bluebells appear earlier here than in Hillbridge.