Monday, February 10, 2014

The Other Foxgloves


When foxglove is mentioned, we think of the biennial Digitalis purpurea, the best-known and most common foxglove. However, that particular foxglove does not do well for us. It is not that you cannot grow it. It does grow, but rather reluctantly. In both gardens I have had, you could grow them, but not very successfully. It must be due to a combination of climate (they can be killed by our winters) and soil (they prefer a slightly acidic soil). However the other foxgloves, mostly yellow, do very well for us.

Digitalis naturalized
Various Digitalis naturalized




There are two yellow foxgloves, the large yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) and the small yellow foxglove (Digitalis lutea).

Various Digitalis naturalized
Digitalises lutea and grandiflora



Digitalis grandiflora is a yellow, perennial digitalis. You would expect that with a name like grandiflora, the flowers would be rather large. In fact, they are bigger than those of the small yellow foxglove, but not as big as those of Digitalis purpurea.  It is really perennial. I have clumps that are very old. It is supposed to be the toughest of foxgloves. Like all foxgloves, the plant grows from a rosette, and the flowers are speckled spots, in this case brown. If you cut the stem after it has flowered, it might bloom again later on.

Digitalis lutea is also perennial. As you can see from the picture, I grow it in a rather wild area where it has naturalized and seems to be able to survive competition. Since it prefers shade, I was thinking I should move clumps of it next to some hosta. The flower scapes would look quite nice blooming above the hosta leaves.
Digitalis naturalized
Digitalis lanata with D. lutea in the background


I particularly like the Grecian or woolly foxglove, Digitalis lanata. The name refers to the leaves that are woolly. The white flowers, veined in purple/brown, are also a bit woolly. These flowers are bigger than those of Digitalis lutea but smaller than those of grandiflora.  In our garden, Digitalis lanata are biennial and select their own spots. They self seed, just a few here and there, in dry sunny spots.  All three of these digitalises are about the same size, 60 to 70 cm.

The most interesting thing about the woolly foxglove is that it is used medicinally. All parts of digitalis are poisonous. They slow down the heart. Fortunately they are very bitter, and it is unlikely anyone would eat them. In 1785, a Dr.Withering discovered that it could be used to treat heart failure. It is a particularly interesting story because in fact he did not discover the medicinal properties but learned about them from "an old woman" a Mrs Hutton. So it is an example of an important medication that was actually discovered by traditional healers. Also interesting is the fact that nowadays, unlike most medications, the active ingredient is not chemically synthesized, but extracted from the plant, Digitalis lanata.

Digitalis naturalized
Digitalis lutea and grandiflora

I have also grown a biennial called Digitalis ferruginea which, as the name implies, is rusty coloured and quite tall with small flowers. I don't seem to have taken any pictures of it. It is more interesting as an architectural plant, since it reaches 1.2 meters.

Another interesting thing about foxgloves is that the name does not come from fox but from folks. In this case the "little folks" or the fairies. As well, apparently, if you make an infusion of foxgloves and put in the water of a flower arrangement, the flowers will last longer!

14 comments:

  1. Pretty little flowererttes. They remind me of rural mailboxes.

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  2. I will have to look for these. They are in the wild.

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  3. I also grow the yellow foxgloves, which I have also seen called Digitalis ambigua. It has done moderately well in my garden, but is not quite thriving. I do like it, though, especially as it will take some shade.

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  4. So this would be your answer to lupins?

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    1. This summer I think I will try the lupines again but in a different spot. These foxgloves do not have the "presence" of lupines. Driving by, you would not notice them.

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  5. This was so interesting. I haven't tried foxglove before, but I like the idea trying the shade tolerant variety with hostas - I'll have to look into this.

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  6. My favourites are D. lanata and ferruginea but the "ordinary" ones are gorgeous too. So many unusual colours available now and combined with the markings in their little throats one can easily understand why bumblebees are drawn in and don't want to come out anymore! I have to try and get some ferruginea for my new plot. Special plants are always a little hard to get in this corner of the world. Thanks for telling me about the book, Alain :)

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    1. I would love to grow the "ordinary" ones but they don't like the garden. Just now I have three that have been sulking for 2 years, perhaps they will do something this year.

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  7. Foxgloves look nice, Alain. I love that they propagate themselves. Also you have to remember they are toxic!

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  8. Very interesting! I don't know D. lanata! I have to try it here. D. ferruginea is very graphic but biennal.. D. parviflora is perennial (short live perennial: 3 years ?) but easy to divide. It's smaller but with the same color as D. ferruginea.

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    1. Of all the ones I know, lanata is the one that likes it most dry (I suppose it is to be expected if it is called "Grecian"). Every year, one or two turn up in unexpected dry places far from the mother plant. I have never had an opportunity to try parviflora. All of the ones I have grown were from seed exchanges.

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  9. I must try some of these again. They have not naturalised for me over here in the UK - but they should. The ordinary foxglove grows everywhere in my gardens but I am a no digger and they do not get buried! They seem to germinate particularly prolifically where it is shaded and sneak into the base of shrubs

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  10. An interesting post, Alain. I haven't had a lot of luck with foxgloves either and will have to try these alternatives. Sheri

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  11. I don't grow foxgloves but I find them quite attractive. Your yellow ones are quiet and demure in the landscape. One must really pay attention to what they are seeing.

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