Each Spring, on a farm set against the beautiful backdrop of the Snowdonia mountain range in North Wales, Vera Thoss is rewarded with a sight that makes the view even better – an impressive carpet of bluebells covering the land. Vera encourages the growth of the wild British bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) on her farm and is the only licensed bluebell seller in Wales.
But there is another side to her: Vera is an environmental chemistry lecturer at Bangor University and she’s been studying the composition of bluebell seeds, together with Patrick Murphy and colleagues, to determine how they could be used in the future.
With an eye to this, the team determined the fatty acid composition of the seeds using 1H and 13C NMR and GC-MS. The seed oil is highly unsaturated (>85%), contains 20% gondoic acid (cis-icos-11-enoic acid, which is found in fish and vegetable oils) and an unusually high proportion of fatty acids with 20 or more carbon atoms. This particular composition indicates that one application of the seeds could be as a biodiesel source, they say.
British bluebells are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended 1998), which is why their sale is only permitted with a licence. But the team says that their work could benefit conservation because a percentage of the gathered seeds would be used to seed new areas suitable for growing bluebells. This is important for bluebell conservation as they regenerate predominantly by seeds, but their seeds are too heavy to be windborne, say the researchers.
Bluebells are poisonous but were used for medicinal purposes in 13th century Wales, as mentioned in the ancient text of the Physicians of Myddvai (Meddygon Myddfai in Welsh), in which bluebells were suggested as a cure for leprosy. The Physicians of Myddvai were healers at the court of Rhys Grug, Lord of Dinefwr in Carmarthenshire, South Wales. They lived in the parish of Myddfai, close to the Black Mountain, and with that view in the background, just like Vera, you can easily see why they were inspired by nature.