With the weather really hotting up right now, it feels like Summer is certainly doing its best to take a hold here at Chartwell. This means that most of the Spring flowers and blooms like Tulips, Daffs, Bluebells and the like have done their turn and given way to the huge array of Summer colour that will soon be completely filling Churchill’s gardens. There are a few plants however that straddle the seasons and one of the best at doing that at the moment is the humble Foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea.
Foxgloves are classed as a short-lived perennial or more commonly as a biennial. We sow ours indoors in the Summer, grow them on, prick them out and pot them on before planting them out in the Autumn where they happily overwinter before blooming the following Spring. The resulting plant can self seed freely if allowed to but when the resulting flowers are as pretty as they are, who cares?! As you can see from the picture above, we actually have a small area of the garden behind the Golden Orfe Pond actually called the Foxglove Bed that is filled with gorgeous spires of white Foxgloves every year. They really sing out from this dark, shady spot but they are certainly not the only examples within the Chartwell boundaries as you will see throughout this blog post.
Digitalis purpurea was named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753 in his important publication ‘Species Plantarum’. The Genus name Digitalis comes from the Latin for finger (digitus), referring to the shape of the flowers. The species name purpurea simply refers to the colour of the flowers of the wild form, which are frequently purple (although a white-flowered form is also fairly common). OK, so Digitalis purpurea is the latin or botanical name and Foxglove is the common name but were you aware of the sheer number of other common names by which this plant can be known as?
Dead man’s bells
Gloves of Mary
Blimey! I’m not sure what the World record is for number of common names but that’s got to be up there, surely?
Foxgloves are a source of digitoxin, a chemical used in the drug ‘Digitalis’, which has been used as a heart stimulant since as early as 1785. Although normally made using Digitalis lanata leaves, D. purpurea use is not unknown. They are also well-known for their toxicity, and ingestion of the leaves can result in severe poisoning. Despite this toxicity, they have been widely used in folk-medicine throughout the ages. Foxglove Tea (an infusion of the leaves) was taken for colds, fevers and catarrh, and compresses were used for ulcers, swellings and bruises. The Foxglove’s most common use however was as a diuretic against dropsy (an accumulation of fluid in the tissues), for which it was sometimes effective, but occasionally proved fatal! William Withering, an 18th century botanist and physician, discovered that an infusion of the leaves of Foxgloves could slow and strengthen the heartbeat, which in turn stimulated the kidneys to clear the body and lungs of excess fluid. He also showed that Foxglove leaves could be used in the treatment of heart failure, but that high doses could also stop the heart!
Van Gogh is said to have taken Foxglove tincture as a treatment for his epilepsy and art historians believe that the yellow haze that this could cause in the sight of patients for this type of treatment may be responsible for the appearance of many of his yellow dominated paintings. Back in 1554, Nicholas Culpeper (an English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer) said that “foxglove was one of the best remedies for a scabby head”! So now you know! In Roman mythology, Flora, the Goddess of fields, crops and flowers, placed a foxglove blossom on Juno’s stomach causing her to instantly conceive. She went from Flora’s garden to the shoreline and gave birth to Mars. In Scandinavia, they say that foxes were saved by the fairies from extinction when the fairies gave them the secret of how to ring the Foxglove bells to warn other foxes of approaching hunters. The foxes were also said to put on these flower gloves so that they would tread more softly among the chicken roosts to capture an unsuspecting hen or rooster. In Wales, Foxgloves were called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.
So whether you believe any of that Foxglove folklore or not, be sure to hurry along to Chartwell soon to catch this year’s crop before they disappear again until next Spring…