Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the scent of the native bluebell

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines, botanist and Plantlife Cymru Conservation Manager.

It’s early morning and we’re heading towards a small bluebell wood a few miles outside Birmingham. In one hand I’m clutching a box of glass funnels and in the other a script for the day’s filming. This script guides everyone in the crew through the item we’re about to film - for example, which shots are needed, what lines have to be spoken and even what I’m meant to be wearing. But when I look at the final section - the critical bit, where the science behind the whole story is revealed - I discover it is worryingly blank...

Filming is all about telling a story. That’s the beauty of Wild Things: there are thousands of maps for thousands of plants, each with its own tale to tell. Asking questions like "Why?", "How?", "When?" and "What?" we can discover the stories behind 50 years of change. It might be a clever quirk of biology, a change in our behaviour or something unexpected in the way two species interact. The trick is then to present it in a new and exciting way. That’s why for the story of Danish scurvy-grass - the fastest spreading plant in Britain - we took advantage of a closed section of the M6, commandeered the NEC in Birmingham to show how its seeds are spread by speeding cars, and set up beach-side laboratory in the back of Chris’s Landrover, complete with fluorescence-cameras to demonstrate how it copes with deadly salt.

Since filming began, I’ve been learning whole a new language. The script is littered with terms like “PTC”, a piece to camera, meaning lines spoken while looking directly down the lens of the camera, “VO” indicating line delivered months later as a voice over in a dubbing studio, and “wild track”, which instructs to whole film crew to be dead silent while the soundman records a few minutes of background noise.  It’s all great fun, if a little daunting at first!

So... Back to that ominous gap at the end of the script! We’ve been trying to track down the unique scent of our native bluebell, so we can work out why it’s so memorable and show what we might lose if the scentless Spanish bluebell takes over. Samples have been collected and sent to Bangor University for analysis, but this has proven more complicated than first thought. The results have been delayed. Without them, we can’t finish filming.

To our enormous relief, we arrive at the bluebell location to find Toby from Bangor University. His results are literally hot off the press. Suddenly we’re talking the complex chemistry of bluebell scent. Molecules like zingiberene, citronella, geraniol and eucalyptol are mentioned in rapid succession. Chemicals similar to these are packed into bluebells, giving them not only their unique scent but also one that’s fruity and refreshing. This explains why we find the scent so attractive and memorable. A quick detour to a supermarket allows us to buy fruit with similar scents and we’re off – filming the final scene so the bluebell item can proceed!

Once we’re in the woodland, surrounded by a carpet of bluebells, we replicate the scent collecting experiment and I can get to work. This is the bit of the whole filming experience that I’ve enjoyed most. With everything in place and the camera rolling, I relax and take a deep breath. On the words “…and action….” I look into the camera and let my enthusiasm and passion for plants take over.

1 comment:

  1. Everyone is talking about the scent of bluebells and keen to know if/when/where Toby's analysis will be published. Maybe it will appear in New Journal of Botany? This is the house journal of BSBI, whose maps are featured each week on Wild Things, and whose emblem for many years was the British bluebell! See the "essence of bluebell" that we use now for our logo at and find out more about how BSBI supports British & Irish plants.