My foxgloves are blooming and they are lovely. I have two types at the moment – Digitalis purpurea and Digiplexis. Digiplexis is a hybrid of Digitalis and a Canary Island species called Isoplexis. Look up the “Illumination” series.. they are pretty impressive. Old fashioned foxglove is hardy in zones 4-8 and they like moist partial shade. Digiplexis is hardy in zones 8-11, so if you’re outside the zone for one, you can grow the other. I am in zone 8 so I can grow both.
Digitalis purpurea is the wild old fashioned variety of foxglove and comes in shades of pink, white, purple and yellow. They are a biennial, so they form a rosette the first year and bloom the second. A lot of people don’t want to mess with biennials, which I do understand. However, when dealing with heirlooms, they are what they are. Foxglove self seeds politely, so you’ll get new plants every year. I am currently growing a perennial species of foxglove, but it is still at the seedling stage. Bees and hummingbirds love the bell-shaped flowers and they are a great vertical accent to add to your garden. I have sometimes watched bees climb inside the flowers and emerge covered in pollen.
Foxglove is the most common name, but it’s also known as Witch’s Gloves, Fairy Gloves, Folk Gloves, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Caps and Dead Men’s Bells. It was most likely originally folksglove rather than foxglove, referring to “the good folk” of fairy. The name digitalis is derived from digitanus, latin for finger, referring to the thimble shaped flowers you can place over your fingers. The leaves are highly toxic and are used to create digitoxin, which is used to treat heart patients. If you grow foxglove, be sure to keep it out of reach of curious children and animals. I’ve read it has a very bitter taste and is therefore not much of an edible temptation, but there’s always the chance. Apparently the most common cause of foxglove poisoning is drinking the water from a vase that had held the flowers. I don’t know why you’d want to drink this, but there you go. My cats do tend to want to taste any available water in their domain. I grow it in my fenced garden and I admire it outside rather than in a vase, and the hummers and bees love me for it.
Foxglove has historically been used for heart and kidney problems, and to treat Aconite (Monkshood) poisoning. An old saying about foxglove says “It can raise the dead and it can kill the living”. It increases blood pressure and regulates the heart muscles. Van Gogh is said to have used foxglove to treat his epilepsy. Dr William Withering is credited with “discovering” the medicinal uses of digitalis in the 1700s, but he first heard of it from a midwife. It was in use by village healers and midwives long before the good Doctor’s discovery.
As you may have guessed from the various names it is known by, Foxglove has a long history of association with fairies, or “the folk”, depending on what part of the world you are in. Victorian fairy painting was a somewhat brief obsession of mine years ago and in many of those paintings fairies are commonly depicted with a hat of Foxglove flower bell. Foxglove is said to attract fairies to the garden, but it can also be used to break a fairy’s enchantment over a human. In Nordic countries, it was said that fairies taught foxes to wear the flowers as gloves, thereby masking their footsteps and allowing them a measure of stealth in raiding the henhouse. In Roman mythology, Juno (Hera in Greek) was displeased that her dog of a husband Jupiter (Zeus) was able to have children with his various dalliances but she herself was unable to conceive. She went to the goddess Flora for help. Flora was a goddess of flowers, youth, Spring and fertility. She covered her fingers with foxglove blossoms and touched Juno’s stomach and breasts, causing her to instantly conceive. From this conception the god Mars was born. I have read that taking foxglove allows you to commune with the fairy folk, but that’s not something anyone should try. In Welsh folklore, it was believed that foxgloves bend and sway not due to any wind, but in deference to fairies and other spiritual creatures.
Foxgloves are well worth growing, in my opinion, and are a must for any cottage style garden. This is a great plant to add vertical drama and to provide pollen and nectar for bees and hummingbirds. It is easy to grow and there are a variety of them available. The perennial I’m currently growing won’t bloom until next year, but I look forward to it. That one is known as “Strawberry foxglove” and the photos I’ve seen of it are lovely. For this year I have tall spires of old fashioned foxglove in white, and Digiplexus in ruby red. I hope you enjoy learning about foxgloves as much as I enjoy talking about them!
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell, Let it not be among the jumbled heap Of murky buildings: climb with me the steep,– Nature’s observatory–whence the dell, In flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell, May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep ‘Mongst boughs pavilion’d, where the deer’s swift leap Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
– John Keats