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Purple Digitalis purpura. The name Foxgloves (digitalis) has always intrigued me. Where on earth does this name come from? Actually it was originally thought to mean Fairies' Gloves in England. 'Folks' was the old name for fairies. The glove part comes from the fact that a child or adult can get a perfect fit for fingers or finger tips by inserting them into the flowers. Naturally the fairies part came from the belief that the fairies would hide in them - a beautiful bed chamber. There are over 20 species of digitalis but the most common is 'Digitalis purpurea'.
Foxgloves are actually Biennials (they flower in their second year) but they can self seed, coming up again the next year all by themselves. See Biennials explained on the Perennials page. They belong to the Plantaginaceae family of which Snapdragons are also members.
Foxgloves grow very tall, from 1 to 5 feet or taller in height and about 1 foot in width. They flower mostly in summer, but overall they do not like full sun. So they should be planted in part-shade. The hotter the climate, the more shade they need. They can tolerate some dryness as long as they don't get it mixed with full sun. They prefer an acidic soil which is rich in compost. The soil should be moist and well-drained. They come in varieties which will flower from spring through summer, depending on the type.
Full sun to part shade depending on the climate
Moist and well-drained soil with plenty of compost
Plenty of room for spreading sideways (from 1 to 3 feet or more)
Staking, if they are very tall; wind can topple them so easily.
Digitalis: (Isoplexis canariensis). A rather exotic type. Photo Credit: Kurt Stuber.
If you keep the soil moist (but not waterlogged) you will get more flowers. Any seeds you collect ie. if they have been allowed to go to seed, should be planted about 18 inches apart to allow them to spread horizontally as they grow taller ( some up to 6 feet high). This also applies to any seedlings which come up all by themselves - be sure not to let them become overcrowded.
Their colours come in white, cream, pink, yellow, purple and pink with deep spotting at their throats. Flowering periods may extend from spring through to late summer depending on the type. The Strawberry Foxglove has a long flowering period and is a beautiful deep pink.
Such a beautiful image of Digitalis purpura in the Pyrenees.
Unlike Delphiniums and Hollyhocks which need to go against a wall or have a stake, they look best in the middle of the garden, especially with a bush behind them as a bit of protection both from wind and sun. If you have or want a 'Moon Garden', the white variety (above top) looks stunning along with the Moonflower which is highly perfumed and a must for every gardener to experience. In Australia they can be found at Nurseries Online. See the very first type which has been bred to flower in the first year 'Foxy' at American Meadows.
From Foxgloves to Van Gogh.
The whole plant is toxic. It can induce hallucinations and various physical symptoms such as nausea, headache, convulsions, tremors and disorders in the heartbeat although there are not many deaths reported. It is thought that Van Gogh used it for therapeutic reasons but unfortunately suffered from its side effects. However it caused blurred vision and also a halo effect could be seen around points of light in the field of vision.
Van Gogh's painting 'Starry Night' is thought to have shown this effect and Foxgloves themselves show up in some of his works. However, it has recently been thought that this painting with its swirling effects could be showing the vision of the Whirlpool Galaxy which van Gogh would possibly have been able to see because of his fascination with the night sky.
As he wrote to his brother: "... it does me good to do what’s difficult. That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars."
So Digitalis was used to control convulsions and epilepsy, just two examples of its benefits and many herbalists up until recent times used it. It has gone out of fashion, naturally, because of its ill effects.
But its use in current medicine is most common for heart conditions. I once had a dog who was given digitalis for his heart, but I had no idea back then that it came from the Foxglove.
Starry Night. Van Gogh 1891.