English bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), are one of the UK’s best loved flowers, rightly so as it is estimated that up to 50% of the world’s population resides here. We tend to think of bluebells as woodland flowers, and the most iconic images are of dense carpets of blue under towering beech trees.
The one habitat you’d probably not associate these flowers with, is a wild open cliff top, with sheer drops to the sea below of 80 meters or more. Yet surprisingly enough this is exactly where you can find them, on parts of the North Devon coastline. It’s nearly always windy, and they take a harsh battering from the Atlantic storms that hit this coast on a frequent basis. So how do they survive here? Apparently they grow best in undisturbed soil that is slightly acidic, which is in fact, exactly what they do have. The coastal meadows are remote and so unproductive from an agricultural perspective, that they have never been intensively farmed. Hence the bulbs remain undisturbed. They require plenty of moisture during the winter and spring, something they definitely get. In the summer they like cool shade and soil that is not waterlogged. In summer and autumn the coastal habitat tends to get covered by bracken. It’s possibly this cover that acts like woodland leaf cover, in that it prevents the bulbs from drying out.
Besides many open meadows, the North Devon cliffs are home to sections of somewhat scraggly ancient woodland. You will not find towering beech trees, but you do find twisted, gnarled and stunted oaks, covered in thick green moss, lichens and liverwort. Many of them could be 100's of years old, but due to the ferocity of winds and storms they never to grow big. Bluebells have a definite association with ancient woodlands. As noted above they like undisturbed soil. These woods have never been felled or managed and so the bluebells have been left to themselves. There is no dense blue carpet; the flowers have to compete with moss and a large variety of ferns. It's not as picture perfect iconic as the beech wood images, but in its own way is just as charming...... and you are far more likely to see fairies here...
Bluebells are an important spring flower. They are rich in pollen and nectar and hence a great food source particularly for bumblebees. Sadly the English species is under threat by interbreeding with the Spanish type. You can tell the types apart in that the English have yellow-white pollen and the Spanish has blue pollen. The Spanish have less of a curve in their petals and tend to be lighter in colour. In the UK the English bluebell is a protected species and it is a criminal offence to remove bulbs.