Wildlife Column: Transparent blue flowers flicker almost incessantly

A few weeks ago as summer had its late fling the North Yorkshire harebells, the wild campanulas, were delightful along disused railway lines, now recreational trails.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 6:00 am
The harebell taken by Ian Rotherham.

With ever-present sea breezes, the delicately transparent blue flowers flicker almost incessantly.

This is the flower, which the Scots call ‘bluebell’ and which thrives in dry, low-nutrient soils, and in full sunshine. The nearly translucent sky-blue flowers are paper-thin and borne on delicate, wiry stems are one of the last summer flowers to emerge as they appear en masse in late August or early September.

Although they are incredibly delicate in appearance, the harebells will continue to flower well into the autumnal gales. They are found across the country and only become scarce in the far south-west, in Devon and Cornwall; they struggle with damp weather! Of course, these harebells are relatives of the garden campanulas and bellflowers, and they have larger wild cousins too such as giant bellflower and nettle-leaved bellflower, denizens of woodland rides, and old country lanes.

Apparently, in north-east Scotland the plant was viewed with a deal of dread and known as ‘the aul man’s bell’ and as a result was left unpicked. It was also called ‘gowk’s thumles’ which relates to an awkward or foolish person or a cuckoo. Across the country, the flower has had many folk-names from ‘fairy cups’, ‘fairy bells’, ‘tinkle bell’, ‘thumble’, ‘sheep’s bells’, ‘Devil’s bells’, and ‘witch bell’ or ‘witches thimble’. Interestingly, despite the flower’s extensive cultural profile in terms of folklore names, I cannot find many references to herbal medical usage.

The root was chewed to treat problems of the heart and lungs, and to ward off depression. There was also an infusion made from the roots was used as drops for sore ears. In addition, a decoction of the plant was drunk and could be applied as eyewash if you had sore eyes. It is also suggested that you can eat the leaves as salad and that they are rich in vitamin C. As the plant is small and delicate, you would need to eat an awful lot!

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer & broadcaster on wildlife & environmental issues, is contactable on [email protected]