Three cheers for the man who strimmed my local roadside hedge!!
Of course he did a wonderful job, widening the road and making the visibility round the corners so much easier, but did you notice what else he did…? He strimmed carefully around every emerging and floriferous foxglove. With our visitor numbers increasing and the hedges abundant with flowers it is always a shame that we have to decimate the roadsides but that is purely for safety. To do this tedious job with such care was a delight. Actually we can see these marvellous foxgloves so much better now as they elegantly wave in the wind and sunshine and I think they are better than ever this year. As with so many of the spring and summer flowers I am torn between attributing the abundant flowers to a cold winter or, as I suspect, last year’s heavy summer rains. The rain helped everything that was developing for the following year.
The foxglove is a biennial. In the first year it sets its seed and forms a rosette of leaves with no stem. In the second year a flower spike emerges which can be 3-4 ft high. I have one in the garden which measures in at 5ft 6”, a real show girl right in the middle of a border.
Obviously the flower sets seed and we see foxgloves coming up the next year to do the whole two year thing again. Sometimes however the root is so long and fibrous that it shoots up again a few inches from the original plant. Equally, as the main stem dies away you may see smaller lateral shoots thrown out from lower down and they may flower again. These shoots also develop if the main stem is damaged in any way, its all down to the survival game.
The common name, foxglove, has little to do with foxes but is thought to have come form ‘folks glove’ as it is possible to put a finger into the flower and the botanical name ‘digitalis’ again from digit or finger or digitabalum, a thimble. The original folksglove was the glove of the good folk whose favourite haunts were supposed to be in woody dells where the foxglove likes to grow. All good gardening books will tell you the foxglove likes full or partial shade. Somebody needs to tell the foxgloves in our Cornish hedges which basked in the June sunshine and considerable heat. Other synonyms from around the country and from history include Witches gloves, Dead Men’s bells, Fairy’s glove and Fairy thimbles. The reference to witches and dead men relating to the medicinal or poisonous elements about which more later.
The common foxglove, digitalis purpurea an indigenous plant, is widely distributed throughout Europe and from Cornwall to Kent and Orkney but not occurring in some eastern counties of England and also not in Shetland. It dislikes chalk soils and although found all over Europe it is not in the Swiss Alps but is found in Madeira and the Azores.
There are about 20 different species of digitalis and countless cultivars many of which have been bred to be perennial. In a county rich with native foxgloves the cultivars can be a struggle to perpetuate as cross pollination from those bees with pollen encrusted backs often changes the colours. They come in colours from pink and purple through to apricot, cream and white and the spots on their runways can be breathtaking. If you want a recommendation look at ‘Elsie Kelsey’ named after Irishman Harold McBride’s sister. Elsie is stunningly white with all her markings purple, therefore an inverse colouring from purpurea.
Not surprisingly the foxglove is a favourite flower of the honey bee, hence although often flowering in early summer in Cornwall it tends to flower generally in July when the bees are very busy.
The projecting lower lip of the flower forms a platform for the bee to land on and the little spots going into the flower are the runway lights to show him the way. As he pushes his way up the bell to get at the nectar, which is right at the end of the flower, the anthers on the stamens rub against his back. Going from flower to flower up the spike he rubs pollen onto the stigma of another flower thus pollination takes place and seeds are produced. The life of each flower is about six days and a single foxglove plant could produce between one and two million seeds. That keeps our purple friend off the list of endangered species. And do you know the foxglove has an even better way of ensuring its survival? Whilst some other insects will take shelter from the rain in its bells no animal predates on the plant. Animals know instinctively that it has poisonous properties. It is a constant mystery to me how they know these things. Folklore reports that the spotting within the flower is not so much a bee runway but a warning of its baneful juices.
Surprisingly the foxglove is not mentioned by Shakespeare or by early English poets. The earliest English descriptions of it are mid sixteenth century and only then by herbalists and one thirteenth century description by a Welsh herbalist who ‘made with it external preparations’.
Now for the obligatory science bit and health warning: the foxglove has greatly contributed to modern heart medicines but its most common usage today is as the basis for the formation of a steroid which is used as a molecular probe to detect DNA.
Do not be tempted to take an unhealthy interest in the healing properties of the foxglove as outlined by countless herbalists from the sixteenth century onwards. As far as you and I are concerned all parts of the plant are poisonous. In small quantity it can cause blurred vision, seeing everything in shades of blue, nausea, anorexia, vomiting. Deaths have occurred from children drinking the water in vases of foxgloves and parents have confused its leaves with comfrey when making herbal tea. Strange but true so beware! We will not eat or drink the foxglove. We will enjoy the beauty of this plant and its prolific spread along the Cornish hedges and say thank you to the man with the strimmer who so clearly appreciated it as much as we do.