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A Bluebell blanket in Belleek Wood

Just as the flowering daffodils signal the end of winter, the carpets of Bluebells that decorate Ballina’s Belleek Wood in late April and early May are a sure sign that summer is on its way.

This year’s Belleek Wood bluebell display has been the most impressive for many years.

The bluebells look their best when the early morning light makes the blaze of blue look even more vivid against the leafy brown forest floor.

The eye is drawn between the trees to the distance where the beds of bluebells seem to merge into a shimmering mirage of blueness.

A bluebell blanket in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
A bluebell blanket in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Bluebells flower in spring, soaking up the sun, before the trees’ budding leaves open to form a green canopy over the woodland floor blocking out the wonderful sunshine and brightness such as we have enjoyed throughout a mainly cloudless April and early May

Threatened 

Bluebells are perennials that flower from bulbs, most profusely in broad leaved woodland such as Belleek Wood. Bluebells can also be seen growing in smaller clumps along ditches and hedgerows – and this year the bluebell displays along country roads throughout Mayo is the best for many years.

The Irish bluebell population is particularly significant internationally as it is a globally threatened species as a result of global warming, but hybridisation poses the most immediate danger.

White and pink hybrids among the bluebells in Belleek Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey
White and pink hybrids among the bluebells in Belleek Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Unfortunately, this threat to the Irish Bluebell is increasing.

The nemesis of our native Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is the introduced Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), a popular garden plant which originated in northern Spain, that when crossed with our native bluebell results in a hybrid (Hyacynthoides x massartiana) which is becoming more common in our natural environments.

Bluebell superstitions

It is easy enough to tell the difference between the native bluebell and the Spanish variety. Ireland’s native bluebell can be identified by the anthers (tips of the stamens) which are a creamy white colour. Whereas the anthers in the Spanish bluebell are blue.

A bumbleebee feeding on bluebell nectar in Belleek Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey
A bumblebee feeding on Bluebell nectar in Belleek Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey

In Belleek Wood, you will also find white and pink hybrids. This may be due to a lack of blue pigment causing the bluebell to flower white and pink. These flowers certainly do not seem to be the Spanish variety.

The invasive onion weed also known as the three-cornered leek that looks like a white bluebell can also be found in Belleek Wood. It’s easy to identify – the green leaves have a strong onion odour.

There are many Piseogs (superstitions) associated with bluebells in Ireland

Superstitions in times past said the flower’s bell could call the fairies when rung. It was also thought to be unlucky to walk through a bed of bluebells because it was full of spells. It is also considered an unlucky flower to pick or bring into the house. This fear was most likely based on the fact that the bluebell is a poisonous plant.

Celebrated

Great poets and artists have been inspired by the sight of the beautiful bluebell.

One of the most heartfelt poems about bluebells is by Anne Brontë (1820 – 1849). the youngest of the Brontë literary family.

The bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;

That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.

Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,

Bluebells can be found throughout Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Bluebells can be found throughout Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.

Less harassed than at other times

I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.

But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet Bluebell.

Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?

Morning sun lighting up bluebells in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Morning sun lighting up Bluebells in Belleek Wood, Ballina, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,

Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.

I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.

‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.