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

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The Independent Online

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.