Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The delights of the vibrant harebell

A A A

I first became aware of harebells when I was 18 and working as a volunteer warden at a nature reserve on Anglesey. It was August, and I hadn't appreciated that small, bell-like, sky-blue flowers nodding on the ends of their stalks appeared at the end of the summer; I thought such things appeared in the spring, and were called bluebells. I suspect the confusion between harebells and bluebells, superficially similar although not related, is quite widespread, and indeed, north of the border the harebell is sometimes called "the Scottish bluebell" as it is found in the Highlands, where the bluebell is largely absent (although the oakwoods of southern Argyll are bluebell-crammed in May). There is one reference to the harebell in Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, but in Jessica Kerr and Anne Ophelia Dowden's Shakespeare's Flowers of 1970, Ms Kerr suggests that your man was referring to the bluebell, and the bluebell is indeed the plant which Ms Dowden has illustrated.

So let us lift the harebell out of this confusion and accord it its own identity. While the bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is a hyacinth, related to irises and orchids, the harebell, Campanula rotundifolia, is a campanula or bellflower, distantly related to the daisies. And the point is, harebells are out now and they are terrific flowers, although it has taken me a long time to work out why their attraction is so potent.

They do not make the precipitate assault on the senses that bluebells do in a bluebell wood when the massed carpet of colour is so astounding that for a second you are lost for words and the trees seem to be growing out of a layer of hazy blue smoke swirling along the ground. Harebells you can overlook: they are more skimpy, more skittish. Sometimes you find them in clumps, but often they're just in ones and twos. They are an altogether frailer plant, partly because they flourish on arid ground – my Anglesey nature reserve was a huge area of sand dunes – whereas the bluebell, usually found in the rich damp soil of a woodland, has a fat sturdy stem which is bursting with sap.

The harebell's stalk is just a wire, and the bell-like flower on top of it could be made from tissue paper; it might have been cut out and pasted together by a child in primary school. This frailty means that it picks up the slightest puff of wind, quivering and nodding and catching the light in a continuous flicker. Christina Rossetti wrote:

Hope is like a harebell

trembling from its birth...

The frailty and the flickering are one of the points people notice immediately about the flower: a light-show in the wind, a friend of mine once said. The other point is the colour, often a pale sky blue, although sometimes a little darker.

The colour is lovely, but something else makes it special: the season. The harebell's blue stands out because when it appears at the end of the summer, much of the life has gone out of the landscape; the grasses have yellowed and browned and grown sere, to use that lovely old word which has nearly disappeared. I don't know about you, but I find this something of a depressing time, when everything seems to be finished for the year, the breeding and the flowering – a sort of in-between nothingness before the arrival of autumn, which has its own sharp identity. The calendar says what are you complaining about, it's still summer, but I've always felt that summer really ends about 15 August, and after that the temperatures seem to be on a downward slope, and birdsong is silenced, the swifts have departed and the trout no longer rise. There are flowers in bloom, such as the pinkish-brown hemp agrimony, and harsh yellow ragwort, but somehow they too are part of the palette of exhaustion. It feels like post-coital depression in the natural world.

Into this late August melancholy (for me, at least) pops Campanula rotundifolia: on heaths or dunes or hillsides, the translucent blue bells catch the wind, and catch the light, and catch the heart, with a vibrant colour which somehow seems to speak of the future, rather than the past, even though everything around is fading and starting to wither. Harebells give the landscape a last flash of life, as the year begins to age and die.

Bellflower and the bee

Christina Rossetti was not the only 19th-century woman poet to refer to harebells; there is also a harebell poem by the mystical American Emily Dickinson, Rossetti's exact contemporary (they were born within a week of each other in December 1830.) It is so unusual and forceful, especially in the shock of the minor but unmistakable erotic charge of the opening, that I cannot resist quoting it in full:

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

To the lover Bee

Would the Bee the Harebell hallow

Much as formerly?

Did the "Paradise" – persuaded –

Yield her moat of pearl

Would the Eden be an Eden,

Or the Earl – an Earl?

It might take a bit of deciphering, but what Dickinson is essentially saying is that things which are cherished because they are pursued, may be cherished no longer once attained.

Touch of flower envy

Writing about French butterfly names last week – and there's a string of words which as a young reporter I never expected to put together – I wondered aloud why the clouded yellow in French was le souci, usually meaning the care, or worry. Mary Robitaille, a reader in France, explains: souci in French is also the name of a flower, the marigold. All is clear now: a terrific name for a golden yellow butterfly, don't you think? The marigold. Wish we had one.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy