A sunny end of March gave way to a frustratingly cold snap at the beginning of April and so the promise of spring gave way to an extended period of hibernation. I could almost hear leaf and flower buds sending out pre-May Day signals – do not open, repeat, do not open – with thousands of years of evolution protecting tender leaves from last spring frosts or failed attempts at photosynthesis due to a lack of necessary daylight hours.

The plants weren’t the only thing craving sunshine and elemental change at this juncture and so I’d booked a long overdue trip to Sweden to visit old friends and their sapling generations with our kids. Tee shirts, jeans and jumpers were quickly exchanged for winter coats and boots as we prepped for what looked like a white Easter with our Scandinavian counterparts. I hate the cold but once there was blown away by the raw nature of pine trees heavy with snow, foot-long icicles dripping from old Viking forts, rivers that stood still as ice, and soon-to-be wildflower fields giving new meaning to the word pristine.

We left this landscape conditioned for more of the same when we got back to Forest Gate, but the return-journey cloudless sunset knew what we didn’t: a new memo had been sent out. Spring had not only sprung – it had bolted to new heights. We got some semblance of this from the verges and fields along the home run of the M25 and the A2 from Gatwick.

But it was the final turn into Capel Road that brought home how much of a sprinter nature is when she gets the green light.

A week on from a departing glimpse of newly verdant yet low-key grass, nettles and dock leaves had given way to a carnival of tree leafage, wildflowers, and an over-riding abundance of green. Thigh high, lacy-flowered colonies of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) had shot up out of seemingly nowhere, cheered on by a chorus of dainty white garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and similarly-leaved bright violet honesty (Lunaria annua) – a biannual beauty that’s my favourite wild and garden plant so far this year (also gorgeous to press when the seed heads are just emerging) – and a cheer of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) and daisies (Bellis perennis) in the fields beyond. Shots of powdery blue also heralded the beginning of one of the area’s most popular annual events – the Wanstead Park ‘Bluebell Festival’ a.k.a. the simultaneous bloom of thousands of native bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) among the silver (Betula pendula) and hairy (Betula pubescens) birch, and grey poplars (Populus x canescens) of Chalet Woods (just past the Temple if you’ve yet to visit).

So, let’s talk about those bluebells, most lauded but also polarising of all our wildflowers.

There are those that believe that we should be able to skip merrily through the drifts of blue – embracing nature, heady hyacinthine scent, a visionary backdrop, and the right to roam or let the children run free – and those that rush to their protection, armed with botanical insight about how long it takes for a colony of bluebells to establish (5–7 years plus crushed leaves mean they can’t photosynthesise) and how precarious the plight of this seemingly populous plant really is: still relatively common throughout Britain but under threat from habitat destruction, hybridisation with non-native bluebells and the illegal trade of wild-collected bulbs.

Long gone are the days where we use the sticky sap of bluebells to bind the pages of our books or as glue to attach feathers to our arrows. No more do we require the crushed bulbs to make starch for our Elizabethan collars and sleeves. Nor do we actively employ this multi-purpose plant’s medicinal properties as a diuretic (increases urination) or styptic (helps to stop bleeding), although research into how bluebells could help fight cancer is ongoing.

What we do need to do is to share them. Share the knowledge. Share the joy. Share the conservation.

I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as defining paths or heaving logs into place to stop folk trampling on these springtime jewels, although this is certainly needed alongside or while other measures are put in place. The wards of Chalet Wood have gone to enormous effort to strengthen these boundaries in a sympathetic, naturalistic way but – even as someone who knows a bit about plants – there is still confusion (and heat if you consult the annals of local Facebook groups). Can you walk on the seemingly bare bits of earth that lead up to the wigwam dens that are within the enclosure, available for children to play with and in at other times of the year? If not, why not? Trampling a swathe of bluebells into omission is an obvious offence but continuing to compact the soil where bluebells need to bounce back and recolonise is not so apparent. Nor do many people see the committed clearing of thuggish brambles that goes on to allow other plant life to have their moment in the light.

I’m personally of the opinion that way more ‘educational’ material is also required, and not just in the way of signs. We need inspiring art and literature to lead the way. Let’s have a bluebell painting competition for our children, a dedicated poetry book, an extra bank holiday themed just around this national pride. Have a proper discussion, but not just between the conservators and increasingly avid bluebell fans of the over-sharing digital age.

Involve young people and budding botanists, artists and scientists, and people from different backgrounds. Expand the viewpoint.

This recently came up in a webinar I took part in for London-based initiative A New Direction (www.anewdirection.org.uk) – a brilliant organisation generating opportunities for children and young people to develop their creativity – with a local ambassador for their Arts Award (www.artsaward.org.uk) and Kew Youth Forum and Youth Explainers (www.kew.org). Our pre-agenda bluebell chat (we’d all been drooling over our respective patches that week) quickly threw up wider issues about access to nature and whether the countryside and even plants can feel exclusive to some people or groups, bluebell woods included. So, what does increased awareness look like? What’s the story within?

I know our local Forest Gate North councillor Rachel Tripp, also a super talented illustrator (see @rectripp), fellow mum and friend, has been illustrating the wildflowers of these parts as I write about them. Using such activities to look closer at each separate plant part – the colour and shape of the leaves, the bell-shaped flowerhead the base of which bees nibble away to steal the nectar without pollinating the flower, the drooping nature that sets the English bluebell apart from its more dominant Spanish counterpart (Hyacinthoides hispanica) with which it can actively hybridise into the also native-species-threatening Hyacinthoides x massartiana, the particular spectrum of purple blue that sends people hurtling into folkloric accounts of fairy magic (consider yourself warned: bluebell woods are  elaborate fairy plots to trap humans into forever wanderlust), or the bulbous green seedheads that are just beginning to set now – can also be a gateway to observing the bigger picture.

The more you know about the way bluebells grow and reproduce, the more inclined you will be to protect them.

This is largely through colonies of small white pointed bulbs, nestled between 3–15cm deep in the ground, the roots of which create a vast network in the soil, the lateral bud parts (found at the base of the mother bulb) allowing the plant to asexually reproduce (no other plants or pollinators required). It can take a while for the bulbs and their bulblets to establish so there may be leaves for a few years, but those clusters of long green tapers are every bit as important as the alluring flowers, bringing nutrients and energy to the bulbs that in turn create all the vital plant parts. That’s why it’s crucial not to crush the leaves before the flowers emerge (January, February, March), why the foliage also needs time to die down after those bells bloom (May, June, July), and why soil should ideally be left to replenish during the dormant period (the rest of the year). Trampling is a year-round hazard not just a seasonal flash in the pan. Also, those gorgeous flowers appear to have been put on the Earth for you and I to admire but they’ve got designs on much more important suitors: namely the woodland butterflies, bees and hoverflies that thrive on the early spring nectar, carrying out much needed pollination at the same time. The ensuing seeds are the bluebell’s secondary reproductive device, but it can take about 9–24 months for them to germinate and then 5 years to flower as the plant still needs to make a bulb and leaves first.

The woodland itself is also important, providing ideal growing conditions for bluebells in the form of dappled shape and mulchy soil. Bluebells are also a signifier of Ancient Woodland – those diverse ecosystems that have persisted for at least 400 years, providing a unique and complex community of plants, fungi, and other microorganisms.

Epping Forest, of which Wanstead Park is apart, is one of the country’s most treasured of such habitats but our privileged proximity to it – in Forest Gate or around – can cultivate complacence: while Epping Forest is home to more than 55,000 ancient trees, more than any single site in the country, and some of the oldest living plants in Europe, Ancient Woodland still only covers 2.5 percent of the UK’s land mass.

New research also shows that ancient trees are vital to the survival of forests in general, and of course humans need oxygen-giving, carbon-dioxide-absorbing trees too. It’s this knowledge that stops me trampling on the bluebells – in woods that have paths and those that don’t.

If that’s not enough to stop you putting your own bluebell-deep family photoshoot or illicitly fashioned wildflower vase arrangement before the need of nature, then try on a bit more, good old-fashioned folklore for size – do not attempt to wear a wreath of bluebells. Apart from the fact that it’s illegal to pick one as the species is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and listed on Schedule 8 of the Act in 1998, it is said that you will only evermore be able to speak the truth. Sounds like a curse to me. Leave the bluebells be and these ancient symbols of humility, constancy, gratitude, and everlasting love with pay you and your fellow Earth-dwellers back tenfold for years to come.

Sonya Patel Ellis is a writer, editor and artist exploring the interconnectedness of nature. Author of Collins Botanical Bible (HarperCollins, 2018), The Heritage Herbal (The British Library, 2020), Collins Garden Birdwatchers Bible (Harper Collins, 2020) and the forthcoming The Modern Gardener (Harper Collins, 2022) she is often to be found roaming around nearby Wanstead Flats or in her garden for botanical inspiration. See www.abotanicalworld.com for more details plus signed books and botanically inspired prints.