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May 9, 2006 > Foxgloves


by Pat Kite

Occasionally I succeed in growing foxgloves. A garden friend has so many, year after self-sowing year, she practically thinks of them as "weeds."

May is foxglove seed sowing time. If you do seeds, you won't see any flowers until next year. But as container plants, foxgloves are present now in all sorts of generic and specific garden shops. So if you like the charming speckled bell-like flowers, now is the time to purchase greenery.

Foxglove, or digitalis purpurea or digitalis lanata, has quite a history. In Germany, foxglove flowers were called "fingerhut" which translates as "thimble." The Latin word for finger is "digitus" or digitalis. Foxglove leaves are the source of a chemical alkaloid used in long-ago medical concoctions for an extensive variety of disorders from bronchitis to insanity. Mostly it didn't help, and sometimes made folk quite sick, but as doctors tinkered with the alkaloid, they came up with the drug digitalis, and then digoxin. Digoxin affects heart muscles. For this reason, all parts of the garden foxgloves have been flagged as "extremely "poisonous." I am mentioning this, in case you and/or yours have a habit of scrambling around the garden chomping on foxglove leaves, roots, etc. Among the alternate plant names is "Dead Man's Bells."

Now that you have been warned, foxgloves are still pretty. Among the almost 70 monikers are Fairy Cap and Fairy Bells. In Ireland, it was said that the bell-shaped flowers adorn the heads of the wee-folk when they frolicked in the moonlight. Pixies sitting on stalks would shake the bell-shaped flowers to supply dance music, thus "Fairy Bells."

The word "foxglove" most likely comes from the words "folk's glove." The folk were the "Little Folk," "good people" or fairies of yore. One tale is that the fairies gave foxglove blossoms to foxes to wear as gloves. With gloves, the foxes theoretically wouldn't get caught raiding chicken coops.

An ancient tale from Norway concerns the superstition that hanging a fox's bushy tail over a front door protected the household from evil spirits. Eventually, nearly all the foxes in the area were killed. The few remaining gathered in a remote cave. Finally, after many appeals to the gods who take care of animals, there came about tall flowers hung with spotted bells. Whenever a fox was being chased by a hunter, it would, in passing, ring the bells as warning to other foxes. Hunters, hearing the odd bell sound, were thoroughly spooked, ran home and slammed the door. Foxes became safe again. The foxglove bells have since lost their sound, but the plant remained.

I love stories. But in case you just want to put in a few foxgloves and skip the palaver, the plant requires rich soil and regular water. It likes some shade. Flowers come in yellow, purple, white, pink, etc. Size varies, but most are about two feet high. Put them, in small groups, with ferns to add garden color.

Have a nice sunny springtime... make up for the rainy months with a spade and some good earth, squeezing in a new plant hither and there.

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