A word of warning to those of you who keep free range chickens – June can be a dangerous month! Why? Well, June is the month that foxgloves come into full bloom, and sometimes bad fairies give the bell-shaped flowers to foxes, to wear on their paws as Fox “gloves” so that they can silently creep up on chickens with even more skill than usual!
Foxgloves are found throughout the British countryside, but are perhaps most commonly associated with woodland, especially where an area has been felled of trees and the soil disturbed, allowing light back onto the woodland floor once again. The seeds can remain dormant in the soil for many years waiting for just such an event to take place, and considering that a single plant can produce between one and two million seeds, there are plenty to take advantage of the opportunity to spring to life once the right situation is created.
The foxglove is a biennial, meaning that in year one it simply produces a clump of leaves, but then in the second year, it sends up a long upright stem, sometimes as tall as a man, covered in beautiful purple/pink tubular flowers. These blooms have evolved to be highly attractive to bumblebees, which land on the specially designed large bottom lip of the flower and then follow the spots on the inside, which lead them to the nectar. The reproductive parts of the plant are all situated in the roof of the flower, and as the bumblebee is a large insect, it has to push its way in to reach the nectar and in doing so rubs its back against the pollen-covered stamen. The process is repeated when the next plant is visited, but this time it also leaves some of the previous plant's pollen on the stigma, thereby pollinating the foxgloves as it flies around the woodland glade.
The foxglove needs an insect the size of the bumblebee for this process of pollination to work, however, so it has to stop smaller insects like hoverflies from entering as they could wander in and out, consuming all the nectar, without brushing against the roof of the flower. Closer inspection of the landing strip used so readily by the bumblebees reveals that it is covered in very fine hairs, known as guard hairs, which deter the smaller species of insect from landing there.
The foxglove has also insured itself against bad weather during its flowering time. You may well have noticed that the blooms start to open from the base of the stalk first, slowly moving up the stem so that it is some weeks later that the final flowers open at the top of the spike. This ensures that if the weather is particularly bad and few bumblebees are active, hopefully there will still be flowers open to pollinate once the conditions improve.
The whole of this beautiful plant is, however, full of the poison digitalis - a well-known cardiac-stimulating compound, which helps many heart patients to stay alive. Get the dose wrong, though, and the plant can kill. Browsing animals such as deer know this only too well and leave the plant well alone. There have been occasions when people have gathered foxglove leaves in the belief that it was comfrey that they were collecting, going on to brew the leaves into a tea... with deadly consequences.
So if someone invites you round for tea this June, lock up your chickens before you go and then choose Tetley if it is offered!