Foxgloves - deadly beauty, bumblebee heaven

If there’s one thing you shouldn’t put your fingers in it is the flowers of a poisonous plant. Foxgloves are perhaps one of the most colourful flowers at The Lodge, and right now (17 June) huge swathes of them are flowering on the newly formed slopes where the derelict brick wall was taken down.

They appear wherever there is a gap in the tree canopy above; if a tree falls, or a glade is made by felling trees, then foxgloves often become the dominant plant for a year or two. It makes me wonder how long the seed lives for; if the plant suddenly appears whenever there is light, it suggests the seed may lie dormant for long periods, lying in wait for the right conditions, which could be decades! Heather seed is similar in nature: it is known to remain viable for sixty or so years, until the seed case is broken down by chemicals found in smoke. So, a heathland fire can ‘switch on’ the next generation of heather seed, ready to sprout. Foxglove seed in contrast might be awoken by light.

Foxgloves are a great flower for insects: moths and bumble bees love them, and it’s worth watching the spires of ‘bells’ to see the bees crawling into the finger like flower tubes to collect nectar. Don’t be deceived though – as I wrote at the beginning, foxgloves are deadly poisonous to humans, and ingesting even a small quantity could slow our heart rate dangerously, so leave them for the bees.

The common name ‘foxglove’ is a bit of a mystery. The ‘glove’ could be from the glove-finger shaped flower tubes. The ‘fox’ part could be from the name ‘Fuchs’ – a plant classifier who recorded foxgloves in the 1600s (the garden flower ‘Fuschia’ is also named for him). However, as the name was around centuries before Mr Fuchs that seems very unlikely! Perhaps a more convincing origin is ‘folk’s gliew’ (a gliew was an instrument with several small bells, a sort of bell glockenspiel), so you might translate foxglove as ‘the people’s bells’, or ‘fairy folk’s bells.

If you visit The Lodge today, take a look at the beautiful foxgloves on the roadside bank and in the woods where we’ve thinned out conifers and created some glades. But whatever you do, don’t touch!

 Image: Peter Bradley, RSPB

Best wishes,