Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Glove of the Fox

I had a good friend of mine the other day send me a message and asked if I had ever heard of Digitalis. She also said it might be a good topic for a blog article, I figured she might be right. The more I researched it, the more "right" she became.
Digitalis purpurea, the common Foxglove, belongs to a genus of about 20 species of herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and biennials.
Folklore suggests several origins of the name "foxglove". The plant may have originally been called 'folk's glove' with 'folk' referring to woodland fairies or little people. One interesting story suggests that woodland elves and fairies distributed the plant to foxes to wear as gloves during raids on chicken coops. The different spots on the flowers helped farmers identify the guilty fox when the chickens disappeared.
The earliest known form of the word is the Anglo-Saxon 'foxes glofa' (the glove of the fox).
It actually derives its common name from the shape of the flowers resembling the finger of a glove.
As you can see, the flowers are produced on a tall spike, are tubular, and vary in color with species, from purple to pink, white, and even yellow. Foxgloves thrive in Zones 4-10 except in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. They are easily grown in average, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Preferring moist, organically rich, acidic soils, which must not be allowed to dry out.
They are native to Western and South Western Europe, Western and central Asia, and Northwestern Africa. Growing 4 to 5 feet tall, Foxgloves are considered biennials, which means the normal life of a Foxglove plant is two seasons, but sometimes the roots, which are formed of numerous, long, thick fibers, persist and throw up flowers for several seasons. However, after flowering, plants can become somewhat scraggly by late Summer, you may want to consider removing them from the garden as soon as they release their seed. An incredible number of seeds are produced, a single Foxglove plant can produce from one to two million seeds to ensure its propagation. Who wants to talk about the possibility of an invasive plant now!?
The flower is a favorite with bees and is visited by other smaller insects, who may be seen taking refuge from cold and wet weather in the drooping blossoms on chilly evenings, that, I guess, is why the invasiveness is overlooked.
The major problems these plants have are Powdery mildew and leaf spot, if it is left untreated, it will damage foliage considerably by late Summer. Dense crowns may rot in soggy, poorly-drained Winter soils. Potential insect pests include aphids, mealy bugs, slugs and Japanese beetles.
I mentioned how the flowers resemble the fingers of a glove, each individual flower fits the human finger almost perfectly. A child can hardly resist poking their fingers into the blossoms that seem almost designed for that purpose. The flowers, leaves and seeds are highly toxic however, and care should be taken when growing this plant to prevent accidental poisonings. Even with this being said, Foxglove is grown commercially as a source of the heart drugs digoxin and digitoxin.
The man credited with the introduction of Foxglove (digitalis) into the practice of medicine was William Withering. He was born in Shropshire, England in 1741.
Digitalis purpurea in Witherings 18th century was a blessing for people with dropsy (An old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water, better known as Edema today). At the same time, Foxglove concoctions began to appear in an attempt to cure, albeit unsuccessfully, illnesses such as asthma, epilepsy, hydrocephalus, insanity and others. The 18th century brought Foxglove into medical light, but it would take several hundred years before its true healing powers could be harnessed completely.
This is a beautiful plant and I had briefly thought about bringing some into my yard as a bee magnet. After doing this research, I am very weary of introducing it here now. The way my luck runs and with as many edibles that I have in my yard, somebody would come along along and figure that these can be eaten too. I really am not in the mood to be put in jail because of the stupidity of somebody else.
Happy Growing!


  1. Thanks Darren! Awesome article. It is a beautiful flower, but like you, I am afraid of someones stupidity! Thanks for researching for me :)!

  2. Great article Darren. I've grown foxglove a couple of times, but it doesn't seem to reseed here...certainly biennial here, but no progeny.

  3. In Tucson, they won't reseed....but make nice potted plants. Beautiful!

  4. Nice article. I currently have 8 plants on their second year. Two are beginning to bloom. I started another 24 from seed to be put out soon.

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