Caught in a trap

The Venus Flytrap plant bought by my son
An unlucky victim!

In 1981, when Dad was writing his column for the corresponding week to this one, there was rather a fuss being made in the news about the height that some local foxgloves were achieving. The average height of a foxglove is between four and six feet, but there were reports of one in York reaching seven foot, and another eight foot six inches.

This ignited my dad’s competitive spirit and he eagerly headed into the garden, armed with a tape measure to find out how our clumps of foxgloves fared against their lanky rivals. Indeed, he found the leader of this unruly bunch, which had colonised a corner near our garden shed, to be at least eight foot tall, and the rest were over six foot. The foxgloves had done unusually well, he believed, because there had been plenty of days of rain that summer, followed by long spells of warmth and sunshine, a bit like this year.

It makes me wonder if any readers have come across any giant foxgloves in 2021? The bumper year four decades ago also prompted Dad to ask: “I wonder if there is such a thing as a world record for the tallest foxglove?”

Of course, had he been asking the question now rather than in 1981, he would have quickly found the answer thanks to the internet. I can reveal that the Guinness World Record has been held since 1997 by Lydia Foy, from County Kildare in Ireland, whose specimen was measured at 10 feet 10 inches.

It might surprise Dad to learn, though, that even that one was beaten by the tallest foxglove yet to be recorded. That honour went to a couple who live Victoria, Canada, who last year measured a still growing flower at more than 11 feet. It prompted Ken Marr, the botany curator of the Royal British Columbia Museum, to declare it was ‘a flower on steroids’. Despite the accolade, the owners were not tempted to apply for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The foxglove is excellent at seeding itself, and as such is considered a pest by some. It starts blooming in May or June, the individual bell-shaped flowers adorning its stem, and as it shoots up, the flowers appear higher up, and the lower ones mature into little capsules full of seeds. It is a most useful plant, its dried leaves being the source of the drug Digitalis, which is still used today to treat heart problems. It strengthens the contractions of that vital organ, thus helping a diseased or weakened heart to cope with the demands of the human body. English physician and botanist William Withering (1741 – 1799) was the first to use it in this way. 

Digitalis can also be poisonous, though. Occasionally, toxicity can build up inside the body leading to loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea or blurred vision. It can also cause the heart to beat faster or slower than normal, or to become erratic, and in extreme cases, can even lead to heart failure. As a result, the drug must only be taken under close supervision.

Talking of plants, one of nature’s most curious creations currently sits on my kitchen window sill. It is the fascinating, yet undeniably gruesome, Venus Flytrap. My son decided he wanted to buy one because he was captivated by the thought that a plant could be carnivorous. I didn’t object because, thanks to the warm weather, we had hoardes of flies buzzing about the house.

My son takes great pleasure in picking up dead flies and depositing them into the waiting jaws of the trap (he does that because he doesn’t have the patience to wait for a live fly to land upon it). Touching the hairs lining the trap triggers an electric charge which causes the jaws to shut, the interlocking teeth preventing escape. A live insect will continue to struggle, and that prompts the trap to completely seal before secreting digestive juices which dissolve the soft tissue, turning it into a nutritious liquid that is then absorbed by the plant. Once it is completely dissolved, usually about a week later, the trap reopens ready to welcome its next meal. 

I’m not going to lie, it is quite macabre to watch, and yet so interesting, and each time I see it happen, I have to marvel at the wonder of nature. 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd and the Gazette & Herald on 1st September 2021