Nature on our Doorsteps - Ingenious Foxgloves

Rosaleen Dwyer is SDCC's County Heritage Officer. Each week she writes in The Echo about the beautiful and diverse wildlife in South Dublin County. 

The tall flowering stems of our wild purple Foxglove are spectacular in June and July. 

They can grow as tall at 1.5m and can be quite impressive when they occur in clumps.

The bells of Foxglove open in sequence from the bottom to the top of the spike. 1

The bells of Foxglove open in sequence from the bottom to the top of the spike. Picture taken at the Hell Fire Club. 

As Foxgloves grow best in newly disturbed locations, they are often seen along roadside edges or in woodland where trees have been harvested.  

Individual Foxglove flower bells are large enough to encourage visits from one of our largest bumblebees, the Garden Bumblebee, which is attracted to the flower’s purple colour. 

Also, the pattern of spots on the lip of the bells also help guide the insect deep inside to the nectar and pollen. 

Foxgloves have an ingenious way to ensure that they do not pollinate themselves. 

The spots on the flowers landing pad guide the insect deep inside to the back 1

The spots on the flower’s ‘landing pad’ guide the insect deep inside to the back

While male and female flower parts occur in each bell, the male parts produce their pollen well before the female parts are mature. 

Also, the bells will only flower in sequence from the bottom of the flowering spike to the top and, interestingly, bumblebees always visit the bottom flowers first. 

In this way, the mature female flowers at the bottom only receive pollen that the bumblebees bring with them from other Foxgloves, ensuring cross-pollination always occurs.

While Foxgloves are poisonous to eat, the plant provides an important medicinal compound called Digitoxin which is used to treat heart complaints.

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