Untangling the folklore of these popular flowers

Well it appears that often seemingly mythical beast, the British Summer is finally here! The temperature is up, the sun is shining, and it's the perfect time to pop out for a pleasant stroll in the countryside. Now one of the great attractions of the British countryside at this time of the year is to take a walk in some bluebell woods. And this seemingly mundane activity has been something of an unofficial annual ritual for a lot of folks for many generations. Such is the popularity of going to see such swathes of blue, that not so long ago special trains would be laid on to carry visitors to the woodlands, or meander passed vistas showcasing the vistas clad in blue. For example, a service of "bluebell trains" once used to run through the Chiltern Hills through the blooming woodlands, and this natural floral display helped earn the designation of "An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty". While in East Sussex, one particular stretch of tracks is still known as the Bluebell Railway. Many nature parks and stately homes still make a point of advertising when their woodland will be carpeted with a stunning sea of gently nodding little blue flowers, and the National Trust even has a page telling you where the nearest bluebell wood is to you.

It is thought that the humble bluebell - that the Hyacinthoides non-scripta taxonomy fans - first appeared in Britain not long after the last Ice Age, and indeed the presence of a carpet of bluebells is often a signifier that a forest is a surviving tract of ancient woodland. However the little nodding flowers have not only been admired for their beauty but have also long been revered for their useful properties. In the Bronze age, our ancestors attached flights of feathers to their arrows with a glue made from bluebells, while the Tudors used a starch extracted from crushed bluebell roots to stiffen their iconic ruff collars. And for several centuries bookbinders have used bluebell derived adhesives to make and repair tomes.

In the modern era we have discovered that bluebells contain at least 15 biological active compounds that the plant utilises to repel insect and animal pests. And it would seem our forebears knew something of this, for general folklore has long asserted that bluebells are poisonous to eat, and one of the uses of bluebells recommended by herbalists, was treating spider bites. However folklore ascribes to them other more esoteric properties, such as being a good remedy for leprosy, and as a treatment for tuberculosis. However there is also a good deal of magic associated with the little flowers too, as demonstrated by the various folk names the flowers have garnered over the centuries such as witches thimbles and fairy flowers.

Firstly, as they begin to bloom towards the end of April, they have been long associated with St. George as that saint's day falls on the 23rd of that month, while in the language of flowers created by the Victorians, bluebells symbolise constancy, humility and everlasting love. And these associations may well be derived from older folklore charms, for two well-known pieces of bluebell lore reflect these properties: it was said that if you wore a wreath of bluebells you would compel a person to tell the truth. And if you turn a bluebell flower inside out, you will win the heart of your true love.

More generally, bluebells were considered useful flowers in other ways too. For example, the Encyclopedia of Folkore and the Occult Sciences Vol 2 by Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevans, published in 1852, tells us -

If you see a bluebell, pick it and repeat the following words: "Bluebell, bluebell, bring me some luck before to-morrow night;" slip it into your shoe and you will get good luck

Folklore also seemingly draws on their repellent qualities as well, for it was said that bluebells may be used to prevent nightmares, Simply place some in or under your pillow, or just hang them near the bed and bad dreams will be kept at bay. Possibly this particular belief might be related to their long usage as an adhesive, but it is possible it may be derived from an older common strand of bluebell lore. For in many places, the little flowers have a strong association with the faeries, and as such it was dangerous to be messing about in bluebells woods.

It has been said that faeries hang their spells on bluebells to dry and hence disturbing the bluebells may unleash wild magic upon you, or just bring down the wrath of the faeries. Less whimsically, it was thought that walking in bluebells may lead you to become 'pixy-led' - that is to say, dazed by enchantment and unable to find your way out of the woods. And darker still in some corners of the country, it was said that a child who picks a bluebell will be snatched away by the faery folk, never to be seen again. Unsurprisingly many folks held it was foolish to pick bluebells or bring them into the house.

However folklore is often very contradictory, and hence in some areas it was said that planting bluebells in your garden was a useful thing to do. Not only would it curry favour with the hidden faerie powers, but it was said that the bluebells would ring if unwelcome visitors approached your door. However once again these whimsical bits of bluebell lore appear to have older, darker roots. For more commonly, it was held that the faeries would ring the bluebells to call their kin to gatherings and meetings. And it was very bad luck to hear a bluebell ring, and in many instances it is said that to hear the chime of the bluebells was an omen of your own death, hence in some places these lovely little flowers gained the sinister name 'dead men's bells'...

And what is the origin of all this bluebell lore? Now normally researching this kind of folklore yields a trail of mentions in increasingly older works, and one can put together some kind of line of descent, and see how different authors, whether literary or scholarly, have passed on the lore to new generations. But in the case of the bluebell, something rather curious happened. For despite there being no shortage of folklore surrounding the bluebell, actually pinning down any sources proved to be somewhat tricky. Indeed I couldn't help feeling that there was more than a little irony in the bluebell's proper Latin name - Hyacinthoides Non-scriptus - which literally means 'the hyacinth that is not written about'.

Joking aside, this Latin name is actually a reference to Classical mythology - the plant name Hyacinth is derived from a tale of a prince of ancient Sparta, Hyakinthos, who was loved by the gods. However the god of the West Wind, Zephyrus grew jealous when Hyakinthos was enjoying a game with the sun god Apollo, and blew the discus they were playing with off-course. The spinning disc hit Hyakinthos on the head and slew him, and where his blood fell, the Larkspur flower sprang up - which the Greeks called Hyacinthos. Now this flower has distinctive markings that resemble Greek letters - indeed the marks appear to spell 'Alas' in Greek, which mythology ascribes to the flowers showing Apollo's grief. Now the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus placed the Larkspur and the bluebell in the same family, and hence the British wild flower was dubbed 'non scriptus' or 'not written' to show it was a variety that did not bear the distinctive markings and not the flower referred to in the classical myths.

Over the years the taxonomic name of the British bluebell had varied before the one given by Linneaus became standard, but generally these older variants often retained the 'non scriptus' tag. Now the origin and derivation of names often can give us clues to where various legends come from. However in this case, all the ancient names of this flower tell us is that it is not referred to in Classical myth. But not all folklore stretches back to Graeco-Roman antiquity, and in the case of the flora and fauna, often the regional or old country names can be very helpful. In his book The Englishman's Flora first published in 1955, Geoffrey Grigson notes a plethora of alternative names for the humble bluebell - Blue Bonnets, Blue Bottle, Blue Goggles, Blue Granfer Greygles, Blue Rocket, Blue Trumpet, Bummack, Bummuck, Crawtraes, Crakefeet, Crawfeet, Cross flower, Crow-bells, Crow-Flower, Crowfoot, Crow picker, Crows Legs, Crowtoes, Cuckoo, Cuckoo Flower, Cuckoo's Boots, Cuckoo's Stockings, Culvers, Culverkeys, Fairy Bells, Goosey Gander, Gowk's Hose, Granfer Gregors, Grammar Greygles, Granfer Griddlesticks, Greygles, Harebell, Pride of the Wood, Ring O'Bells, Rooks Flower, Single Gussies, Snake's flower, Snapgrass, Wild Hyacinth and Wood Bells. And while that list might seem very comprehensive, it is but the tip of a floral iceberg, for Roy Vickery, who was a botanist for the Natural History Museum, London for over 30 years, in his excellent tome Conkers, Garlands and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant Lore (Bloomsbury 2010) reckons the bluebells have around 70 or so different names in the British Isles.

Now many of these are fairly self-explanatory referring to the colour and shape of the flowers. However one does notice a frequent association with crows and cuckoos, (incidentally a gowk is a regional name for the cuckoo, while a rook is a member of the crow family), and this is somewhat curious as neither bird features directly in the bluebell lore we recounted last week. However the cuckoo lends its name to many regional titles for plants and flowers, and generally this comes from a common origin - namely that the cuckoo is a traditional harbinger of spring. Indeed there has been a long tradition in the British Isles of recording when the first cuckoo is heard, and one of our oldest folk songs 'Sumer is Icumen In' is a celebration of hearing the first cuckoo call of the year that heralds spring has begun. So then, given the symbolic importance of the cuckoo in the English calendar, plants that begin to appear when the cuckoos can first be heard have therefore often gained an association with that bird.

Now the crow on the other hand has a somewhat sinister reputation, particularly in the modern popular imagination, where it is frequently spotted in horror genre imagery. However, being a carrion bird, crows and other corvids have been linked to death in many ancient traditions as well. But while bluebells have a dark side too, sometimes being called Dead Men's Bells and supposedly ringing to herald a death, I rather suspect the association with crows being invoked in so many regional names is most likely due to a far more innocent connection. And that is simply that crows begin nesting, often rather noisily, in April, which is of course when the bluebells begin to appear in our woodlands.

However while detailing several local traditions in which garlands containing bluebells are made, in his highly comprehensive book of plant folklore Mr Vickery makes no mention of any of the legends and lore we discussed last week. So then, I consulted several other key reference books that every amateur folklorist should have. The Oxford Dictionary of Folklore compiled by J, Simpson and S, Round (Oxford University Press 2000) has no entry for bluebells, and neither does E and MA Radford's Encyclopedia of Superstitions (Hutchinson 1974). Likewise consulting the excellent Brewers Encyclopedia of Phrase and Fable yields no results either. Worse still A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press 1989) edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, a superb tome that gives detailed chronological sources and quotes for all the folklore contained within, has nary a mention of the little blue flowers either. And while many other books and articles make mention of the assorted lore I've recounted above, none actually give any sources leaving us with something of a puzzle - on one hand, bluebell superstitions are widely known, and yet they are conspicuously absent in many volumes detailing real historical folklore and legend.

More illuminating however was the mention of bluebells in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967) by Katherine Briggs -

In Somerset they say you should never venture into a wood to pick bluebells. If you were a child you may never come out again, and if you are a grown-up you will be pixy-led until someone meets you and takes you out.

And there I think we may have finally hit the jackpot. For Katherine Briggs was a hugely influential folklorist, penning many volumes that are now recognised as classics in the field, and hence many subsequent tomes on folklore have been assembled from old lore collected and recorded by this eminent scholar. And it is my guess that a good many of the standard write-ups of bluebell folklore one finds in modern books and webpages are built on the slim foundations of this reference. Over the years it would seem that Briggs's reference to this piece of Somerset superstition has been (mis)represented as a common belief, with an isolated local bit of folklore being careless transmuted into a national superstition. However as the book it appears in was only published in the 1960s, and in turning up so many blanks in so many other major reference works, I began to wonder if the roots of all this bluebell folklore was actually lay elsewhere entirely.

Now there was a huge craze for all thing faery in Victorian and Edwardian England, and this ran so deep that our modern view of faeries owes far more to the romanticised whimsy of the Victorians than it does the actual legends concerning elves and the like. And in this period old folk tales were dressed up, indeed often sanitised, and repackaged as literature for children. Now in addition to trimming away all the rough and nasty edges of the old tales, we also had a pantheon of very talented authors and artists creating whole new worlds of imagination. Sometimes they drew on existing stories but more often than not they were inventing entirely new creations. Hence our modern conception of fairies as cute little Tinkerbells faffing about with flowers is very much a product of Victorian and Edwardian art and literature, creatures of what we might term faux-lore rather than authentic folklore. However in the old classics of children's literature from these times, there is sometimes a mixture of both real folklore and modern whimsy; something Katherine Briggs herself went on to note in her fleeting mention of bluebells. She speculates there may have been a similar Northern tradition of bluebell woods being places to become pixy-led, citing an incident a story book by Beatrix Potter.

For in 1929, Potter published a book entitled The Fairy Caravan which tells the tale of a guinea pig called Tuppenny and is set in the countryside around Graythwaite Hall in the Lake District, Cumbria. During his adventures, Tuppenny and his chums are riding in a horse-drawn caravan and attempt to pass through a little wood of oak trees which "was covered in bluebells - as blue as the sea - as blue as a bit of sky come down". However despite the wood being small, it takes the animal pals a good four hours to get through it, as they seem to be just going around in circles, while unseen hands pelt the travellers with little oak apples. And although Potter never had the elvish inhabitants of Pringle Wood make a direct appearance in the text, her illustration accompanying this portion of the tale clearly shows the Little Folk amid the flowers.

Now clearly this incident in The Fairy Caravan recalls the bluebell lore mentioned by Briggs. However this is never explicitly stated in the text, and hence I'm not sure we cannot draw any firm connections here. Many varieties of faeries were said to enjoy confusing travellers in this way, and to visit certain places where they were said to dwell was to risk becoming pixy-led. And so, without specific references, Potter could well be drawing on Cumbrian faery lore attached to oak trees, or woodlands in general, rather than bluebell superstitions - for example there are similar (although admittedly more sinister) shenanigans when entering fairy-haunted woods in Algernon Blackwood's Ancient Light (which you can hear here), but there are no bluebells flowering there.

On the other hand, given the popularity of Beatrix Potter, that evocative picture of the blue pixies in the woodland flowers may well have made a connection with these flowers and fairies in the popular imagination. However once again, there is a twist in the tale, for while this story was first published in 1929, the book wasn't released in the United Kingdom until the 1950s. So then, much like the Briggs volume, we have another rather relatively recent reference... Was there anything a bit older?

And so I delved a little deeper, with my next port of call being the Flower Fairy books - a hugely popular series of seven books written and illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker. The first book was published in 1923, establishing the format of a full page picture of a particular fairy and the flower it inhabits alongside a short verse telling of its character and nature. Over the years six more books would follow, along with a posthumous volume and numerous anthologies collecting the volumes together in whole or in part. And I think it's fair to say that when people generally think of fairies these days, they are picturing little floral folks like Barker's creations.

Now the actual verse for the fairy of the Bluebell (which you can see here), appears in the first volume Flower Fairies of the Spring (Blackie 1923). Unfortunately for our purposes, it isn't terribly enlightening, however it does come with an interesting note that reads "This is the Wild Hyacinth. The Bluebell of Scotland is the Harebell". Now Ms. Barker would cover the Harebell in her second book, Flower Fairies of Summer (1925), and here I think we have the key to our puzzle, for the verse reads thus -


O bells, on stems so thin and fine!
No human ear
Your sound can hear,
O lightly chiming bells of mine!

When dim and dewy twilight falls,
Then comes the time
When harebells chime
For fairy feasts and fairy balls.

They tinkle while the fairies play,
With dance and song,
The whole night long,
Till daybreak wakens, cold and grey,
And elfin music fades away.

Now we did we not read in the first part of this series how it was said that bluebells tolled for faery gatherings? And while 'harebell' is an alternative name for the English Bluebell (the Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but there is another flower that bears this name, the Campanula rotundifolia. Now this flower has similar delicate bell-shaped blooms, but is of an entirely different species. And despite its title "the bluebell of Scotland", harebells are actually common throughout England. They tend to flower later in the year, around August and hence they are sometimes also known as harvest bells. And following this lead, we find the following entry in The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightley (Thames and Hudson 1987) - a compendium of lore compiled from various sources, some dating back to Tudor times -

Harvest Bells are better known as "Harebells", "the Bluebells of Scotland". This is the flower of the magical hare, called Fairy Caps and Fairy Ringers, has supernatural protectors, so it is very unlucky to pick it.

Again we are seeing a large overlap with the bluebell lore here, and I rather suspect that there has been a good deal of confusion over the years, with most of what is commonly reported as bluebell folklore actually being the lore of the harebell. Certainly it may explain why proper historical sources for bluebell lore are so thin on the ground: the actual lore is hiding under the harebells.

Now the Campanula Rotundifolia, to give it its proper Latin name, is often referred to as "the Bluebell of Scotland", however actually grows all over England too. Now just to make matters utterly confusing, the "proper" English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is often called a harebell too, so then it is perhaps unsurprising the legends and lore of these two common woodland flowers have become entangled over the years.

For example, both have been claimed to be the flower of St. George. But as DC Watts points out in his excellent volume Dictionary of Plant-lore (2007), harebells bloom around August, months after St. George's Day (23rd April), whereas the bluebell begins to flower around the end of April. Mr Watts therefore theorises that it is the bluebell that is properly St. George's flower, but thanks to their names being used interchangeably at many times and in many regions, the tradition has been recorded in harebell lore too.

And looking into the various traditional and country names the harebell has had over the years, we find clear evidence that its folk traditions have overlapped and intermingled with that of the bluebell. For harebells are also known as witch thimbles, witch's bells, the Devils bell, dead men's bells and the fairies thimbles - names that it shares with, or at least are very similar to, the assorted folk names for the bluebell. And in the light of what we already know, one has to ask which flower actually had the lore originally - for as we have seen in our previous strolls through the bluebells, actually folkloric sources are somewhat thin on the ground.

However looking into the literature of the harebell, we find an abundance of references and links to much of the folklore that is usually attributed to the bluebell. For example, in Notes on the Folk-lore of the North East of Scotland (1881) by Walter Gregor, we are told -

The bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia) was regarded with a sort of dread, and commonly left unpulled

While in The Folk-lore of Plants (1889), TF Thiselton-Dyer expands on this -

Among further plants of ill omen may be mentioned the bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia), which in certain parts of Scotland was called "The aul' man's bell," and was regarded with a sort of dread, and commonly left unpulled.

Now the Scottish man name for the harebell mentioned here "aul' man's bell" (meaning old man's bell) is very illuminating. For in Scotland, "the Aul' Man" was a nickname for the Devil himself, and therefore one did not wish to incur the wrath of the Dark Lord by picking his chosen flowers. And while in modern times we do not associate fairies with the Devil, in ages past there was a close connection between Hell and the world of faery. As we have mentioned in the past, the elves and sprites of folklore are dangerous beings, often cruel and malicious, and furthermore there was a belief that the faeries owed Hell an annual tithe of souls. Therefore it was thought that they snatched away travellers and children (sometimes leaving leaving changelings in their place) in order to spare their own kind being sent to the inferno.

Also closely allied to the elven folk were the witches. To begin with, witches in old European folklore were thought to be in league with the Devil, but in many witch trials in the United Kingdom, in particular those in Scotland, we have many testimonies from alleged witches that they not only consorted with evil spirits and attended sabbats with the Devil and his imps, but also had dealings with the faeries; learning spells from them, and even visiting Fairyland. With such an ominous triumvirate of associations occurring in their alternative names, it is no wonder folks were wary of picking harebells.

And there is a further association with old magic contained within their proper name too. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name comes from their tendency to grow where hares were seen, and the hare has had a long association with magic and witches. Without falling down this particular rabbit hole - for hares in folklore is a vast subject in itself - let us just quickly note that witches were often said to be able to turn themselves into hares -

It was into a hare the witch turned herself when she was going forth to perform any of her evil deeds, such as to steal the milk from a neighbour's cow. Against such a hare, when running about a farm-steading, or making her way from the cow-house after accomplishing her deed of taking the cow's milk to herself, a leaden bullet from a gun had no effect.

from Notes on the Folk-lore of the North East of Scotland (1881) by Walter Gregor

Now harebells coincidentally produce a white milky sap, and consequently were sometimes called milk-ort - meaning "milk herb". And given that they grow where hares were often seen, one can understand why in some places it was said that witches used the sap of the harebell to effect their transformations into hares. I have seen it claimed that that harebells were one of the ingredients in the flying ointments cooked up by witches, however as I have yet to discover a recipe which mentions them, I suspect that this alleged magical use of harebells is a distortion or misunderstanding of the belief they were used in transformations into hares.

But showing a lighter side to the flower, but retaining the old connection with hares, there is a superstition that they rang to warn rabbits of foxes, a belief referenced by John B Tabb in this poem from his collection Child Verse: Poems Grave and Gay, first published in 1900 -


Ring! The little Rabbits' eyes,
In the morning clear,
Moisten to the melodies
They alone can hear.

Ring! The little Rabbits' feet,
Shod with racing rhyme,
If the breezes they would beat,
Must be beating time.

Ring! When summer days are o'er,
And the snowfalls come,
Rabbits count the hours no more,
For the bells are dumb.

There are numerous other references to harebells actually ringing too. We find this old belief mentioned in many places, for example in a song from 1911, An Autumn Song with lyrics by Fred G Bowles and music by Bertram Luard-Selby, we have these lines -

How soon the Autumn day is done,
The briefer light, the lower sun
Pale hare-bells ringing in the wood,

Somewhat melancholy I'm sure you'll agree, and possibly a faint echo of an older, more sinister belief about harebells ringing. For as we have heard previously, another of their country names was "dead men's bells" referring to the idea that to hear the harebells ringing was an extremely ill omen. And once again when we follow the references to harebells ringing, it is not long before we find the faeries once more. In The Romance of Nature; or, The Flower-Seasons Illustrated published in 1836, Louisa Anne Twamley (later Louisa Anne Meredith after her marriage in 1839) has the following verses in the Autumn section of her book of poems and pictures -

Have ye ever heard, in the twilight dim,
A low soft strain,
That ye fancied a distant vesper hymn,
Borne o'er the plain
By the Zephyrs that rise on perfumed wing
When the sun's last glances are glimmering?

Have ye heard that music with cadence sweet,
And merry peal,
Ring out like the echoes of fairy-feet
O'er flowers that steal?
And did ye deem that each trembling tone
Was the distant vesper-chime alone?
The source of that whispering strain I'll tell,
For I've listened oft
To the music faint of the Blue Harebell,
In the gloaming soft.
'Tis the gay fairy-folk that peal who ring
At even-time for their banquetting.

And gaily the trembling bells peal out
With gentle tongue,
While elves and fairies career about
'Mid dance and song.
Oh! roses and lilies are fair to see,
But the wild Blue Bell is the flower for me!

Now while the verses are certainly taking a somewhat quaint a view - a very early example of the fairies of folklore being transmuted into the cute versions of modern pop culture, they are clearly linked to the older and darker associations the flower has with supernatural beings. And as this poem hails from the 1830s, it predates much of the earliest studies into folklore, and so we have the harebell providing a historic source for what are often touted as bluebell beliefs. One can also see from the wording used in this poem how the confusion has arisen over the years, with bluebell and harebell being used interchangeably.

And harebells have continued to have magical associations even in the modern age, with a fine example being found in the poem The Lane by Edward Thomas. In this verse we have an allusions to hearing the supernatural peals of the little flowers, resulting in a moment of mysterious transcendence, being taken out of time for a moment...


Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed...
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.

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