Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Foxgloves and fairy bells

Wild foxgloves making a showy display

The foxglove must be one of our most striking wild flowers, and in the less formal parts of our garden we welcome its stately spikes of purple flowers. The name conjures up a delightful image of the flowers making gloves for foxes, but we shouldn't take it that literally. It probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word gliew - a musical instrument with hanging bells, and folk's meaning the little people or fairies. In Ireland and parts of Britain it's still referred to as fairy bells.

I remember as a child collecting the flowers and fitting them over my fingers. A magical plant indeed. Had I known how poisonous it was, I might have been a bit more reticent about handling it. Chewing a small piece of leaf can be fatal, and all parts of the plant are poisonous. And yet it's one of those plants which, despite being so poisonous, also yields the drug digitalis which is used to treat heart complaints - a treatment first described as long ago as 1785.

Some of our foxgloves bred for the garden

This year our wild foxgloves have been supplemented by some of the more showy garden varieties that I raised from seed last year. The colour range is from white, through cream to salmon pink, but it's the size of the flowers, the number on each spike and startling markings that make these such terrific plants for a border.

The mutant flower

A plant caught my attention today because one flower has opened flat and is significantly larger than the rest. It seems this is quite a common phenomenon in foxgloves in the wild and in cultivation and is the result of a mutation. It's called a peloric flower and even Darwin was fascinated by this oddity and did some experiments to see if seed from these flowers produced plants with the same odd flowers. Apparently they do - so I'll be following in the steps of the great man when I collect the seed, as I intend to, and see what flowers the plants I raise produce.

A bee busy pollinating

Darwin also took a great interest in foxglove flowers because they are wonderfully adapted to ensure cross-pollination by bees. In fact the whole design of the flowers has bees in mind. There's a landing strip marked with eye-catching spots, the nectar is at the base of the flower so the bee has to push its way up the tube of the flower with the anthers and their pollen attached to the roof of the tube. Pollen rubs off on the bee's back and gets carried into the next flower and onto the stigma for pollination.

The foxgloves are alive with bees at the moment and there's certainly a lot of pollination going on. The result apparently is one to two million seeds on each foxglove spike. It's a plant that doesn't leave the next generation to chance!