The Once and Future Foxglove: Patience. And a Reader.

By Michelle Railey

2010 foxgloves (Feat)
These photographs are all that remain of my foxgloves. They lived in 2010. One purple and one white. I planted them in the garden I had wrung out of the fumes from the nearby Eli Lilly campus, long-neglected soil, and an old, shotgun-style house — all 400-ish square feet of it — which I both affectionately and derisively referred to as “The Tenement.”

The Tenement had its faults. But it ended up being a tidy and comforting sort of place, perfect for one me and one cat. And a garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and shockingly large zucchini; morning glories and moonflowers; hollyhocks, poppies, nasturtium, and wildflowers by the hundreds. There was no seed I planted that did not thrive and bloom, inspire and delight. I had never planted foxglove before. Nevertheless, there they arrived, one year after dropping the seeds: four-to-five-feet tall and glorious, stately spikes of fairy-tale flowers.

And then I moved.

I should have transplanted them but moving is difficult and they had been so simple to start that I foolishly believed “easy come, easy go.” I would plant others in suburbia. And they would grace and rule over the garden-to-be.

It hasn’t happened yet. The developers of our little corner of Utopia built houses, very close together, with uneven seams and, I would guess, rapid turnaround time. They built houses which would profit them immediately but wouldn’t be sturdy in forty years, let alone the lifetime of a mortgage or a human. It’s a nice home but at the end of the day, at the end of time, The Tenement will outlast it. And perhaps my foxgloves will, too.

At any rate, the cutthroat developers, venal be their names, also carted off every square inch of topsoil. Profit on top of profit and never mind the poor souls who would attempt to garden in their close-too-close, suburban plots.

I plant foxgloves every year. My grandmother’s gardening book, The Wise Garden Encyclopedia, tells me “Easy to grow in the garden, so long as they have some shade, foxgloves will thrive in any ordinary soil. They are generally propagated by seeds or by division following the cultural rules for perennials. Seed for biennial species may be sown in the spring or summer, producing flowering plants the second season. Leaf spot may be prevented by spraying with bordeaux mixture…”

My foxgloves will thrive in any ordinary soil but they will not (yet) so much as sprout tantalizing but flower-less leaves in a yard composed entirely of gravel, clay, and weeds.

So, I read every other thing I can find about foxgloves, searching for guidance on how, oh how, to make these seeds bloom in such a place; or at least to give solace and memory to my once and future foxglove, while I wait for the future to arrive. And bloom. In purple and/or white. Three to six feet tall in suburban soil. I can be patient: some foxgloves are worth waiting for.

Foxgloves, A Reader:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), In Memoriam: “Bring orchis, bring the foxglove spire, / The little speedwell’s darling blue, / Deep tulips dash’d with fiery dew, / Laburnums, dropping-wells of fire.”

Mary Webb (1881-1927) “Foxgloves:” “The foxgloves bells, with lolling tongue, / Will not reveal what peal were rung / …Deep, deep in wizardry / All the foxglove belfries stand. / Should they startle over the land, / None would know what bells they be. / Never any wind can ring them, / Nor the great black bees that swing them — / Every…bell, down-slanted, / Is so utterly enchanted.”

The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine: “It was first known by the Anglo-Saxon name ‘foxes glofa’ (the glove of the fox), because its flowers look like the fingers of the glove. This name is also thought to be related to a northern legend that bad fairies gave the blossoms to the fox to put on his toes, so that he could muffle his footfalls while he hunted for prey. The legend may account in part for some of the common names of digitalis: dead men’s bells, fairy finger, fairy bells, fairy thimbles, fairy cap, ladies’ thimble, lady-finger, rabbit’s flower, throatwort, flapdock, flopdock, lion’s mouth, and Scotch mercury.”

Mrs. Lankester, edited by J.T. Boswell. English Botany, Or, Coloured Figures of British Plants (1866). “It happens, moreover, the name foxglove is a very ancient one and exists in a list of plants as old as the time of Edward III [1327-1377]. The “folks” of our ancestors were the fairies and nothing is more likely than that the pretty coloured bells of the plant would be designated ‘folksgloves,’ afterwards ‘foxglove.’ In Wales it is declared to be a favourite lurking-place of the fairies, who are said to occasion a snapping sound when children, holding one end of the digitalis bell, suddenly strike the other on the hand to hear the clap of fairy thunder, with which the indignant fairy makes her escape from her injured retreat. In south of Scotland it is called ‘bloody fingers’ more northward, ‘deadman’s bells’ whilst in Wales it is known as ‘fairy-folks-fingers’ or ‘lambs-tongue-leaves.'”

Robert Bevan-Jones, Poisonous Plants, A Social and Cultural History: …”a ninth-century Irish text describes the plant as ‘foxglove of the moor,’ while the apparent absence of the foxglove from Shakespeare’s plays encourages some to believe that it had a limited historical distribution. However, it may be possible that the ‘long purples’ of Shakespeare are foxgloves…”

And, further reading from The Wise Garden Encyclopedia: “Common name for Digitalis, erect biennial or perennial herbs whose stately spires have been favorites in gardens for many generations. Natives of Europe and W. Asia, they have been widely and successfully grown in N. America, and have occasionally become naturalized. Their long spikes on stems 3 or more ft. high are crowded with large thimble-like flowers all drooping toward one side and beautifully spotted on outer or inner surface…D. purpurea has important medicinal use as a heart stimulant.

D. purpurea, the old-fashioned foxglove, may be found growing wild along shaded country roads in England. Four feet tall, this species has flowers 3 in. long, purplish in color and somewhat spotted. Var. alba is white, and an improved variety, known as gloxinaeflora, has wide-mouthed flowers and longer spikes than others of the species.”

But lastly, this, from Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), “The Peacock:” “The peacock has a score of eyes, / With which he cannot see; / The cod-fish has a silent sound, / However that may be; // No dandelions tell the time, / Although they turn to clocks; / Cat’s cradle does not hold the cat, / Nor foxglove fit the fox.”

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