Foxes and fairies and witches - oh, my

Foxgloves have charming “freckles” inside. — k8southern/Creative Commons

Foxgloves have charming “freckles” inside. — k8southern/Creative Commons

I never saw a fox wearing gloves, but the very thought of it predisposes me to like the early summer flower that could provide such a sight — if only in the mind’s eye.

Foxgloves, as we commonly call the Digitalis clan, bear a slender spike of bell-shaped blossoms that just might fit the tip of a foxy paw. Can’t you just see a whole row of glovies in graduated sizes hanging at the entrance to the family burrow?

According to one train of thought, foxgloves are favored by foxes to keep the dew off their paws. Trouble is, more lore associates these plants not with foxes but with fairies — and the common English name may really be a corruption of "folk’s-glove," that is to say, the gloves of the wee people.

So claims Bobby J. Ward in his charming book, "A Contemplation of Flowers," (Timber Press). I’m grateful for this insight, because that would explain some of this plant’s other names: fairy thimbles, fairy fingers, fairy bells, fairy’s caps and fairy’s petticoats. It seems that foxgloves represent one-stop shopping for sprites.

But there is also a dark and sinister side to the foxglove, source of the powerful heart stimulant digitalin. Its medicinal value has long been known, and it is still cultivated in modern times to produce the potent drug.

The sap, flowers, seeds and especially the leaves — even dried ones — carry the active ingredient, which can be fatal in excessive doses. This is clearly no plant to take lightly, and it’s not surprising that it is among the 13 plants recommended for a witch’s garden. There, it might be referred to by one of its other names: witches’ fingers, bloody fingers, or even dead men’s bells.

Certainly, you might want to forego planting this traditional cottage flower around your cottage if you have toddlers fond of sampling the flora, or if you have a herbal tea devotee who might mistake the leaves of foxglove for those of the innocuous comfrey, which they strongly resemble.

Self-sown foxgloves can create a nice colony. — nicdafis/Creative Commons

Self-sown foxgloves can create a nice colony. — nicdafis/Creative Commons

Those caveats aside, foxgloves are among the loveliest of flowers, with their tall spikes of speckled pink, rose, yellow or white flowers rising high (3 to 5 feet) above a basal rosette of finely toothed leaves. Nothing is more charming than a woodland garden with these floral exclamation points nestled among the trees, or a perennial border where their statuesque spires offer a backdrop to shorter old-fashioned flowers like pinks and peonies.

Foxgloves are extremely easy to grow from seed, and the fact that they need light to germinate favors a fairly casual propagation. Just toss them on the ground, uncovered, and hope for the best.

Most varieties are actually biennials — plants that live just two seasons producing leaves only the first year and flowers the next. They reseed themselves so readily that they often reappear in the same place, year after year, acting for all intents and purposes like perennials.

The commonest type, Digitalis purpurea, comes in rose and a white variation, alba. The Shirley hybrids offer a range of pastel colors; the Foxy strain comes into bloom quickly, in as little as five months; and the showy Excelsior types have flowers borne on all sides of the spike, rather than just one side as in other varieties.

Two true perennials are Digitalis mertonensis, universally described as being "the color of crushed strawberries," and the pale yellow Digitalis grandiflora, also known, ambiguously, as ambigua. I’ve grown both, and prefer the former to the latter. The species and hybrids are better still, in my opinion.

Foxgloves like light shade and moist, well-drained, fertile soil. You can sow seeds in the summer (don’t cover them with soil, remember), growing plants to a size that will allow transplanting to permanent locations in the fall. Flowers should appear next spring, and if you cut back the initial spire, you can sometimes encourage the plant to rebloom in mid-summer.

Deer usually leave these plants alone, making them valuable in deer-prone neighborhoods. If foxes or fairies come calling, though, you’re on your own.