The owners of a patch of Kent woodland harvest the seed of their English bluebells, helping ensure this ancient English plant thrives in the future.
Hidden away down a narrow Kent lane that twists and turns past pretty tile-hung cottages and hop fields, lies an ancient woodland. Sitting in a landscape of small fields, large orchards and high hedges, 75 acres of 400-year-old chestnut coppice casts dappled shade over a sea of bluebells. In the warm sun, the scent of the flowers marries with the intensity of the blue to create one of the glories of late spring.
The wood is part of Farnell Farm, owned for the past 18 years by Barry and Karin Craddock. They bought the farm and its 180 acres of pasture, arable and woodland after moving from London. The only thing lacking was a house on the land, so they live five miles away in the small town of Cranbrook.
Deciding what to do with the woodland was a challenge. It was first planted 400 years ago with both oaks and sweet chestnuts. The oaks were left to grow into mature trees, while the chestnuts were coppiced every 20 years. They produced sturdy, long poles for the surrounding hop farms. In the 20th century there was a decline in the number of hop farms, and consequently a decline in the demand for the poles.
The woodland was considered to have little value, when they bought it. This was confirmed by a conservation officer at the time. “What are woodlands good for except squirrels running up trees?” was her comment. Undeterred, the couple continued to clear dead trees and scrubby undergrowth. Each spring, they paused in their work to revel in the reappearance of the bluebells. “Can’t we make a crop of these?” Karin asked three years after they bought the land. As she researched their life cycle, the idea of harvesting the seed gradually evolved.
English bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, are a protected species under The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. This forbids the harvesting of native bluebell seed or bulbs for the purpose of trade without a licence. “I think we were the first to get a licence, which is renewed every two years,” she says. “We have to send in a map that shows we rotate the area of the woodland from which we harvest. When we started, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) asked us how much we wanted to collect. We had no idea and I don’t think they did either. Initially we said half a kilo, bearing in mind how little a bluebell seed weighs [1 gram equals 200 seeds]. Now we have permission to collect considerably more, up to 8kg, although we have never reached that limit.”
Sowing the seed
Karin and Barry do not harvest the bulbs of their bluebells.
“Some of the bulbs are hundreds of years old. If they are left undisturbed they constantly renew themselves by reseeding,” says Karin. “We help this process by scattering any surplus seed we have left at the end of the year. Either side of the farm track was devoid of bluebells when we arrived and now it’s as good as the rest
of the woods. It is reassuring that scattering seed can re-establish a population of these plants.”
At one point, DEFRA wanted the seed genetically tested. This was to prove it was the true native bluebell and not crossed with the introduced Spanish bluebell, H. hispanica. The problem was that the flowers are pollinated by bees, so the Craddocks cannot control where the bees collected pollen from. “We have found a way to manage this ourselves. Some of our bluebells growing on our boundaries close to gardens or roads are suspiciously big. This indicates they may have crossed with Spanish bluebells, so we do not harvest those.”
From flowering to seed collection
Bluebell leaves start to emerge in the woods at the beginning of March. The peak flowering at Farnell Farm takes place in late April to May. “Because we are on a hill there is a bit of variation,” says Barry. “The southern slopes flower two weeks earlier than the northern side.”
Two months after flowering, the seed will be ripe and ready for collection. “It has to be bone dry and basically falling out of the pods,” says Karin. “You can’t collect it if it is wet because it will rot. If it is windy, there’s a danger the seed will just drop to the ground.” Cold weather earlier in the year causes problems if it hinders the bees from pollinating the flowers. “This happened in 2012,” says Barry. “The flowers looked fine but they set hardly any seed. Fortunately the year before was very good so we had enough to tide us over.”
The couple collect all the seed by hand, a job that requires several days of fine weather. “It is back-breaking work,” says Karin. “Because it is in the woods there are midges and mosquitoes. It can be very uncomfortable, but it is bearable as a seasonal thing.”
They use different techniques to gather the seed into cotton bags. Karin shakes the heads directly into the bags, while Barry strips them off the stems into his hand and then into the bag. Barry’s method is quicker, but bluebell seed is poisonous, so careful handling is required. They do not wear gloves as they would not be able to feel what they are doing. “We always wash our hands after we have handled the seed,” he says.
Drying the crop
Long wooden trestle tables sit in a barn at the farm. The couple had these tables specially made to lay the harvested seed on. It is spread out onto large sheets of paper and left for the few green seeds to turn black. Depending on the weather, this takes two or three days. Then Barry winnows them, by gently blowing away husks and debris to leave the seeds. Much of the Craddocks’ equipment and storage was improvised as they went along. That includes using ice cube trays to keep the seeds in. These have proved to be an ideal size, making the seeds easy to handle. The trays are packed into boxes with silica gel. An indicator is included in the box that changes colour from green to orange when perfectly dry. This is the same system used by the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, 35 miles away.
Once totally dry, the seed is decanted into containers ranging from large pill boxes to sandwich boxes. They are then sealed for the long term in a large box with more silica gel. Small batches are put in barrier foil packets, as needed. Barry designed the packs, which feature one of Karin’s photographs of the bluebells. Now they have an indefinite shelf life, and are ready to be sold.
In years of plenty, the couple hold on to some as an insurance against a poor harvest the following year. If it proves not to be needed, they distribute it in the woods, ensuring that the bluebells of Farnell Farm have a secure and lasting future.
Growing bluebells from seed
Bluebell seed collected from garden plants can be sown immediately or dried for later use. The seed is scattered on raked soil, or in seed trays filled with leafmould or standard potting compost. The seed is not covered, just raked in gently. A cold spell is needed to help them germinate, so trays are left outside over winter. Seedlings are indistinct when they first grow, appearing like fine hair, making them easy to miss. Clearly marking the seed beds helps avoid them being stepped on. It takes three years for plants to reach flowering size.
Words: Stephanie Donaldson Photography: Michelle Garrett