08 July, 2008


The stately spires of foxgloves brighten up roadsides and field edges in early summer. 'Foxglove' occurs in a manuscript dated to 1000 AD, and is derived from 'fox' and 'glove' according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the plant is called 'fox bell' in Norway. Why the plant should be associated with foxes is mysterious, though there is a rather charming Scandinavian story that foxes were told by wicked fairies to wear the flowers on their feet so they could creep up silently on chicken coops.

Foxgloves are associated with magic and supernatural beings, usually not of the benevolent kind, with names such as "witches' gloves", "dead men's bells", "dead men's fingers", "fairy thimbles" (Pollington 2000). This may be because the plant is highly poisonous, which would be a sufficiently good reason to ascribe it unlucky properties and keep well away. Foxgloves contain digitalin, one of whose effects is to make the heart muscle pump harder - potentially useful in cases of congestive heart failure, but fatal in overdose.

Foxes and fairies aside, the creature to which foxglove flowers are superbly well adapted is the bee. If you watch a patch of flowering foxgloves on a sunny day you will probably notice them being visited by large numbers of bees. This isn't a coincidence; the foxglove is doing the bee a favour by providing it with a free meal of nectar, and the bee is doing the foxglove a favour by pollinating its seeds.

Have a close look at a foxglove flower, and you can see some of the adaptations that make it especially well suited to pollination by bees.

The foxglove flower is bell-shaped, with a wide mouth tapering to a narrower tunnel. Right at the top of the tunnel is the nectar, a sweet sugar solution that bees like to feed on. This is essentially a bribe to persuade the bee to climb up inside the flower to get at it. As the bee squeezes up to the top of the flower - a tight fit for an insect of its size - it has to brush against the reproductive parts of the flower which are located in the roof of the tunnel. If you look closely at the last photograph you can just see the tips in some of the bells. As the bee brushes past the male parts of the flower it gets showered with pollen. When it has drunk the nectar at the base of the flower, the bee backs out of the mouth of the bell and flies off to the next flower, where it rubs some of its pollen load off on the female reproductive parts and picks up more pollen. And so on. Once pollinated, the flower can set seed (something like a million seeds per flower for the foxglove), which will then be scattered on the wind to spread the plant to new locations. The bees get fed; the plant gets to reproduce. Mutual help.

Foxglove flowers are purple because bees happen to be attracted to purple. The wide mouth of the flower and its extended lower lip makes it easy for bees to land on it. The pretty patterns of splotches and dots inside the flower that look like abstract art to us are the equivalent of landing lights and taxiways, saying to the bee, "This way to the nectar". They show up even more vividly in ultraviolet light, which humans can't see but bees can. You may just be able to see very fine hairs on the lower lip of the flower; these are guard hairs and they deter smaller insects from landing. Small insects would be able to climb up to the nectar without brushing against the reproductive parts of the flower, so they would get a free meal without spreading the pollen; a good thing for the insect but not for the plant, hence the deterrent hairs.

So, not so much stealthy slippers for foxes or thimbles for fairies as a cafeteria for bees. But that wouldn't make such a pretty name.

Pollington, S. Leechcraft. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003, ISBN 978-1898281-23-8.


Gabriele Campbell said...

It's called Fingerhut here, finger hat.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we have anything quite like that in the U.S., at least not that I've seen. Interesting flower.

Constance Brewer said...

Great pictures! I've only got lilacs in my yard, all I can get to grow. Then again, I consider green grass an accomplishment. Pass on hordes of bees, however. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Constance, you can teach the gnomes how to do that bee and flower thing. :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Beautiful! Wish I could get nice close-ups like that--though the weeds in my yard aren't exactly worth the trouble.

Bernita said...

Excellent pictures and description.
Puzzled why "purple." To me it's pink. Just as purple finches are not purple but dark pink.

Carla said...

Gabriele - its Latin name is 'Digitalis' = finger-like, so very closely related to the German name. 'Finger hat' is a good description. By the way, what's the German for 'thimble'? I suppose a thimble could be called a finger hat.

Steven - Foxgloves of various types occur in Europe, Asia and Africa but not in the Americas as far as I know.

Constance - I like lilacs. We don't have one, but the neighbours do so I get to look at theirs from my office window. Handsome flowers.

Gabriele/Constance - I am told that the Welsh name for foxgloves is 'goblin's gloves'. Maybe gnomes ought to get in on the act?

Susan - The camera did most of the work :-) I tried lots of shots and picked the best - hooray for digital! I could never afford that with film!

Carla said...

Bernita - The colour is a deep pink crossed with purple. I thought of describing it as magenta. It varies with individual plants, with the age of the flower and also with the light and the angle. These flowers in this light happen to be more pink than purple. But you're right, they never get to be the blue-purple colour that violets are. I suppose 'purple' can be practically anything between red and blue so it can mean different things to different people.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, a thimble is a Fingerhut, too. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - aha! Many thanks. I wondered if 'Fingerhut' could be related to the various 'thimble' names. Looks as though it could be.

Steve said...

We have a lot of Foxglove here on the northern coast of Oregon. We even have some that are white. It is a weed here and is all over the place.