Definitely ground-blue. Because sky-blue and the sea-blue cannot rival it.
Every spring, they turn the woodland floor into a carnival, swaying in their thousands in the rain and lobbing perfume into the air like so much confetti. The UK has about half the world’s bluebells, and considering that a sizeable bulk of them are crammed into the 2.5% of the country that is still ancient woodland – well, you get the idea. In early May, you cannot really tell if trees have roots or are just afloat on a fragrant sea.
Occasionally, their show adds a stichwort or two.
Or frames a passing fox.
England has an extremely rich plant folklore; even the most obscure flowers have acquired strange connotations over the centuries. Bluebells, upfront and demanding on the senses, stirred imaginations forcefully in their bell-like shape – they rang for fairies, so they said, but any humans who heard the tolling were doomed. More practically, their bulbs provided starch that stiffened Elizabethan collars and their sap deterred insects from attacking book binding.
Today, they have protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act against commercial gatherers, although there is also concern that the introduced Spanish bluebell is hybridising where it escapes from gardens. But mostly the blue show goes on. And it is, as you can see, almost entirely blue, except for the odd moments when it is white.
Like white wave caps on the woodland sea.
A name that needs no imagination. It’s very sharp, very short, and, well, very easy to lean into during a picnic.
Thistles can hurt, as all students of Scottish folklore know. If a party of Scottish soldiers really were alerted to a Norse invader by his anguished step upon a thistle, it wasn’t this species, which is only found in England and Wales. Even here, it has quite a localised distribution. It likes chalk or limestone meadows where grass has been kept short by grazing.
The North Downs have bones of chalk. Where the slopes have escaped modern agriculture, a dazzling variety of wild things grow. Field scabious peaks at this time of year, and here has been found by a marbled white butterfly.
Centaury continues the colour theme. It is named after Chiron, a centaur in Greek myth. Like pimpernel, it closes in uncertain weather.
It can have up to fifty flowers on a single plant. Scabious offers one, but grows in company.
And summer wanders on.
So many colours! All shining between snow and sun.
Hurried breakfast, out on the trail. It is a switchback – what could be more Swiss? – and it is fragrant, pine sap perfume leaking from a thousand trees. Red squirrels flit between them, much darker here than their lowland kin.
The Matterhorn is veiled – clouds encircle it, as if entranced. Somewhere to my right are the misshapen summits of the Monte Rosa massif, western Europe’s highest mountains after mighty Mont Blanc. It is always winter up there, and even ten thousand feet beneath the Rosa, the snow is yet to die.
Waterfalls infuse the Vispa River with glacial glow. But the meadows sparkle on with every colour in the paintbox.
Yellow alpine pasqueflower
Every forgotten bank and unnamed corner is as rich as England’s best SSSIs. Up to eighty species of plant per 100 square metres – this is a garden of wild things, stretching onwards for mile upon mile.
The trail has not ended. Many hours have passed. Time to pause and reflect.
You see it, smell it, hear it as it rustles in the spring breeze.
They’re so emphatic that they have an entire habitat named after them – bluebell woods – as if the year is defined by their show.
Woodland glades are theirs, but some surprise old meadows with their company.
And then they’re gone, and the flowers of early summer take their turn.
I recently blogged my time in Romania, a country that still has sprawling meadows crammed with wildflowers. In Britain, we’re not so lucky; 97% of our lowland meadow is gone, swallowed up by the industrialisation of farmland.
The surviving fragments – that 3% – are often small and isolated. But some of those relics are magnificent.
Today is National Meadows Day in the UK – a celebration of those bits of wild grassland that we still have. I have some of the best meadows in England on my doorstep, some of which are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. Others are just sitting there, unprotected, which is not the most comfortable feeling.
What lives in them? Everything! Harvest mice, small reptiles, gorgeous butterflies, rare snails, bizarre fungi, and enough insects to befuddle my identification skills. I hardly have space to show all the flowers; a single square metre can host 15 species. Here’s a sample, anyway:
Perforate St John’s wort
Sainfoin and buttercup
These are places to walk softly and listen, and be dazzled by the sheer splendour of life.