Writing from the 'edge of his private hell' the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw in the humble bluebell the very 'glory of God'. 'The blue buzzed-haze and the wafts of intoxicant perfume' of Hyacinthoides non- scripta which so enraptured Hopkins in his state of theology-induced melancholy, exert a similarly powerful effect over the rest of Britain.
In the next two weeks, hundreds of thousands of nature lovers, from Scotland to Surrey will journey into the woods to take in Britain's most spectacular wild flower display. Thousands more will come from overseas to take part in hundreds of bluebell walks. In Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Sussex, special trains will deliver devotees of the bluebell to woodland sites. There will even be a bluebell church service at Swithland Wood in Leicestershire
But the future of this natural marvel is under threat on all fronts. Officially a declining species, the most recent and potentially devastating challenge is from global warming. Climate change has already begun to unleash subtle changes on the British countryside. Last week the UK Phenology Network reported that spring was getting earlier. January was two degrees warmer than the long- term average, and winter resulted in a record number of unseasonal events. From the flowering of daffodils in December to frogspawn in October, nature's alarm clock is going off early. It is estimated that for every one-degree Celsius rise, spring advances by six days.
This creates particular problems for the bluebell, which takes advantage of a brief window of opportunity in nature " the time between the warming of the soil and the closure of the woodland canopy. Seventy per cent of bluebells are found in woodland and broadleaf forests. With spring recorded earlier each year, the canopy is coming earlier, so this window is slowly closing. The bluebell could be losing its competitive advantage as other plants bring their rapid growth period forward. Unless the bluebell reaches maturation before the other plants, it cannot set viable seed and ensure a fresh carpeting of flowers the following spring.
The British Isles is the home of the bluebell. It is not only the most popular " it is regularly voted Britain's favourite flower " but our forests, meadows and cliff tops play host to half the world's population. They are only found in significant numbers in the similarly changeable Atlantic climates of northern France and the north of Spain.
The first bluebell shoots emerge in January, when the branches of the leaves are bare. This early flowering habit allows the plant to tolerate the extreme shade of the woods and contend with the smothering effects of rivals such as bracken and Japanese knotweed.
They eventually flower in April and May when for just two or three weeks they carpet the woodland floor.
Simon Cole has managed 40 acres of bluebell woods at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, west London, for three years. He is bracing himself for one of the busiest weekends of the year as nearly 50,000 people descend on Kew for the Mayday Woodland Festival, timed to coincide with the flowering of the bluebells.
The appeal is obvious, he said. 'This is the emblematic plant of this country and has been voted the most popular. It not only puts on a fabulous display but it is in a very unusual colour. Blue rarely occurs in nature,' he said.
But it was not always so. Before Hopkins saw salvation in the swaying stems, many feared it. …