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The bottom of our garden has been made into a mini woodland. There's a big, old field maple growing there so a woodland theme seemed the only appropriate way to go and even if I say so myself, it's been very successful.
The ferns, hostas, astilbes, ivy, primulas and various other bits and bobs that grow there are all very lovely but everything has its moment and for the time being they've all been pushed out of the limelight by one particular plant - the tall, majestic foxglove that's at its best right now.
Foxgloves, or digitalis, to give them their proper name, are native plants that grow tall spikes from a dense rosette of large, oval, downy leaves. The spikes can be anything from 3 to 6 feet high, depending on ground conditions, how much sun the plant gets and which species you grow. Flowers are borne along the length of the stem with the bottom flowers opening first. The spikes may well need staking to keep them from flopping as they become weighed down with flowers.
The most common foxglove is Digitalis purpurea, the tall, purple variety that can be found on river banks, roadside verges and wasteland with the occasional white flowering plant being seen now and again. However, its numbers are rapidly decreasing in the wild so growing them in the garden will ensure that they don't disappear entirely as well as provide food for bees and other beneficial insects.
If you don't like the native purple foxgloves, there are whites, creams, pinks (everything from a very pale, pastel pink to deep rose) and apricots available. I've seen some pure whites but otherwise they all appear to have the characteristic spotted throat seen on the long, lipped thimble shaped flowers of the purple variety. These markings, which are ultra violet, help guide bees towards the nectar and the plant is especially attractive to bumble bees, whose numbers have been declining to the point where some varieties haven't been seen for several years in some areas of the UK. So, if for no other reason, foxgloves are worth planting to help save our humble bumble bee. Butterflies, however, find it impossible to get inside the narrow flowers.
Most garden varieties are biennials although a few annual varieties are available nowadays. Biennial means that during their first year they produce their leaves and then bloom the following year, set seed and die. However, as they'll freely self seed, if you plant a couple of flowering foxgloves in your garden now and another couple next year, you should have a least twice as many next year, some blooming and some not, so your collection will continue to increase. The only real drawback of allowing foxgloves to self seed is that coloured varieties may well revert back to the natural purple colour so if you definitely want other colours you'd be better off buying seed and sowing by hand. I haven't tried it myself but understand it to be a reasonably painless procedure with seeds being sown either outside in their final position or in trays early in the year for planting out in autumn.
As with other self seeding plants, when spring arrives and the hoe comes out you do have to be careful not to grub out the foxglove seedlings or else there'll be no display to enjoy.
Foxgloves don't like standing in the blazing sun for too long so are cracking plants for brightening up areas of light shade. They'll also grow in full shade but with some loss of colour depth. They prefer acid soil but will grow just about anywhere although aren't too happy on very heavy, clay soil. We garden on clay but mixing in plenty of humus (compost, leaf-mould and well-rotted manure) and grit with an added layer of top soil has helped considerably.
Flowering in late spring/early summer, foxgloves that aren't expected to self seed should have their flower spikes cut back once they've started to fade as this sometimes promotes a second flush of flowers later in the season. Personally, I'll be letting one plant self seed but cutting the others back in the hope of more flowers. Foxgloves also make wonderful cut flowers.
According to folk lore, foxgloves grown beneath apple trees would improve the flavour of the apples (well it can't hurt to try, I suppose). Their name has supposedly derived from a time when fairies gave the flowers to foxes so as they could wear them on their feet when raiding chicken sheds. The flowers would help them tread quieter and therefore their getaway would be easier. There's an alternate name for them, too - deadman's fingers. It's understandable why they're most commonly known as foxglove although deadman's fingers is meant to have come from the idea that the souls of dead people lived in the flowers. Why? I don't know. Go ask the fairies.
Unfortunately, like so many other beautiful plants, foxgloves are poisonous. Not just certain parts either; the whole plant is toxic so I'd think twice before growing them in gardens where there are small children, even though I'm an advocate of teaching children from an early age never to eat anything from the garden, even if they see others eating them. That goes for fruits, too. Small children aren't able to differentiate between berries and plants so it's better to just have a no-go rule to everything and in this particular case, it isn't just foxgloves that contain this particular toxin as lily of the valley contains the same substance. Anyway, getting back to foxgloves, the toxins they contain are various cardiac glycosides which at worse can lead to heart seizure. Symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, delirium, hallucinations and an irregular heart beat. However, things aren't all bad. A drug called Digitonin that's used to help patients with certain heart complaints is derived from glycosides although how they discovered this I don't know as the therapeutic dose is very close to the lethal dose.
I can't think of any other herbaceous plant that can match the foxglove in a woodland setting and as for the cottage garden, foxgloves have an old-fashioned appeal that simply cannot be ignored. There's a reason why cottagers grew certain flowers in their gardens which were predominately vegetable gardens and it wasn't just for the purpose of cutting. No, they were canny people who knew that by attracting beneficial insects into the garden, they'd be helping their veg along, too. Where would we be without the bee, after all?
a great review! good tips and excellent knowledge throughout. :) x
queen_rain 11.12.2004 20:30
informative and enjoyable to read, though it would benefit from more 'personal experience' stuff
solamarie 30.08.2004 21:48
That is a great review of a great plant, mmpr recommended your gardening reviews to me too, one year I had foxgloves underneath the cooking apple tree but can't remember if it helped the flavour, after all once you have added sugar and cooked the things they don't taste like apples anyway do they? Sue