Plant Tales No 2: Digitalis, 'Foxglove'

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I'm passionate about foxgloves, in the right location they naturalise readily, they are easy to cultivate, the resulting varieties are rich in colour, stature and texture – I like the sophisticated rusty brown shades. These elegant plants have history, beauty, variety, a suspicion of danger and, being very attractive to bumblebees, serve a practical environmental purpose – what is not to love!

Whenever I think of foxgloves I can’t help but be reminded of Jemima Puddle Duck by Beatrix Potter – and that first meeting with the “sandy-whiskered gentleman”. The foxgloves presence in the foreground gleefully hints at the danger that dear, dotty Jemima is in – and at the true identity of the charming stranger.

 

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She rather fancied a tree-stump amongst some tall fox-gloves.
But – seated upon the stump, she was startled to find an elegantly dressed gentleman reading a newspaper.

 

Beatrix Potter illustrated Digitalis purpurea, the common purple foxglove. This woodland favourite has a rich and rather fascinating history. Here are a couple of gems I’ve stumbled upon:

The foxglove has long been known to have medicinal qualities. As far back as 1785 Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) published An Account of the Successful Use of Foxglove in Some Dropsies and in Pulmonary Consumption – and, later that same year, Dr William Withering also published his discovery that an effective treatment for heart conditions could be made from drying the leaves just before the plant flowered and crushing them into a powder. He also discovered that if you gave the patient too much it was extremely poisonous! Don’t try this at home!

Roughly 150 years later, during the second world war, imports of key medicines were disrupted and part of the shortfall was compensated for by harvesting medicinal herbs in the countryside. Collection parties were organised by the Women’s Institute. During 1941 it’s reported that the Oxford and surrounding WI’s staggeringly energetic collection of foxgloves and belladonna yielded 350,000 doses of digitalis! Providing a year of continuous doses of treatment for 1000 patients.*

 

My favourite 3 varieties [this week!] are:

Digitalis Mertonensis
Strawberry foxglove.

There is a disarming ‘bruised’ quality to this perennial hybrid. A hint of lemon in the pink flowers associates perfectly with woodland, woodland edge and wildflower gardens. We use them for their vertical accents and because they instantly add a ‘touch of the countryside’ to a planting scheme, especially when associated with Cow parsley or grasses such as Deschampsia.

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Digitalis Ferruginea
Rusty foxglove 

This one demands sun – Tall coppery, yellow spikes which cover the late season throughout July and August and stand well into the autumn. Glossy dark leaves offer a great vertical accent against frothy umbels like Selinium wallichianum and reds such as Allium sphaerocephalon.

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Digitalis Alba
White foxglove

This is a delightful white-flowered foxglove. It self-seeds freely, good against dark backgrounds advancing at night or enlivening a muted colour palette and will quickly naturalise in the garden. Shown here with deep red Astrantias and the pink Cow parsley, Chaerophyllum hirsutum roseeum.

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*source for WW2 historical fact: Jambusters by Julie Summers (an excellent book! Well worth a read)