A Bunch of Bluebells - Or Blavers or Bluebottles?

The bluebell season is almost over. The bluebell season has not yet begun.

Well, neither of these statements is untrue.

It is all in the word "bluebell," which applies to at least two quite different kinds of wild plants.

When an American visitor asked me the other day - pointing at a host a bluish flowers flourishing under some trees - "Are those the bluebells of Scotland?" I was stumped for a direct answer. How could I easily explain that, yes, they were bluebells. And that, yes, they were growing in Scotland. But that, no, they were not the bluebells of Scotland.

"I'm afraid the bluebells of Scotland are quite another sort of plant," I said, "not in flower yet. I'll show you a picture later."

Popular names for plants are a veritable quagmire of imprecision. No wonder that botanists prefer Latin terms, and no wonder that even people who love nature look up at the sky in desperation when attempting to grasp and commit to memory the name of some inoffensive-looking example of a native flora.

And it is not just bluebells.

In a few weeks now, the pervasive scent of the mock-orange bushes will be suffused in the summer air. Mock orange?

Obviously, these white-flowered shrubs are not actually orange trees, any more than mock turtle soup is real turtle soup. But these shrubs are also commonly called syringa. And that is wrong, too. Their proper name is philadelphus. It is lilac that is correctly called syringa. And lilac (syringa) and mock orange (philadelphus) have nothing in common, except that they both have wonderful perfume in the flowers.

And then there are nasturtiums.

Nasturtiums, with their substantially rounded wrinkly seeds, round flat leaves, and cheeky orange, yellow, or red flowers, are children's garden flowers par excellence. They grow easily, flower willingly, and can even be used in salads. The only problem is that they are not nasturtiums at all. That name belongs to watercress, which is another matter altogether.

What every other mother's son calls a nasturtium is actually a tropaeolum.


As for the bluebells - let me try to sort it out. The first to flower, and generally in woods among trees, is the bluebell with juicy stem, slippery narrow leaves, and flowers that, it must be admitted, do consist of numerous bells dangling from the stem. Are they blue? Well, they are not red or yellow, but if one were very particular, one might argue that they are blue verging on mauve rather than sky blue. In the right woodland circumstances, these flowers can increase like rabbits until the tree trunks in May seem ankle-deep in a morning-misty lake of soft, intangible color. The effect is incredible, even rather outrageous in its delicious abandon.

These "bluebells" are sometimes called wild hyacinths. But they are not hyacinths, even though they do grow from bulbs. They are, in fact, correctly called (today) Endymion non-scriptus.

The bluebells sometimes known as the bluebells of Scotland (at least that is what they are called in Somerset, in southwest England) do not grow from bulbs; they bloom later in the summer; they do not have juicy stems and leaves; they do not colonize woodland floors; but they do have blue (or blue-mauve) bell-shaped flowers of unsurpassed delicacy and wind-wafted lightness shivering on their filamental stems.

They like to grow on banks and hillsides, meadows, moors, and dunes. Most people call them, in fact, not bluebells, but harebells. In different localities in Britain (just to add to the fun), these enchanting plants have all sorts of other names, such as blavers, bluebottles, cuckoos, ding-dongs, fairy caps, fairy ringers, gowk's thimles, granny's tears, school bells, and milk-orts.

But if you want to be absolutely certain to be understood when referring to the bluebells of Scotland, the only safe thing is to call them Campanula rotundifolia.

But this Latin name, onomatopoeically speaking, has a deeply sonorous ring to it that's completely at odds with the fastidiously sweet tinkle that - if you had the acute ears of a bat - you might just hear on the breezes sometime between July and September.

And one more thing: There is not the slightest need to come to Scotland to find this delightful plant. It grows all over Europe. It grows all over the world.

Perhaps that is why it is called "of Scotland." Just like the Scots, it settles very comfortably everywhere.

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