Foxgloves – Opera Length
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There are about 22 species of Digitalis, all of them known as foxgloves, but today’s special is D. purpurea, the common foxglove, a weed of the English hedgerows and a weed in its willingness in gardens across the US northern tier. ( The farther south you go, the less delighted they are.)
They’ll bloom for months if kept deadheaded, but are most glorious in early summer, just reaching their maximum 5 or 6 feet as the peonies start declining. And foxgloves can be almost as permanent as peonies, even though they are biennials (or short-lived perennials), because they self-sow so prolifically.
Each flower is good for at least a hundred seeds – usually, there are far more – and a happy plant will produce anywhere from 60 to more than 100 flowers on its roughly 5 to 9 spikes. (The woodland world is not paved with foxgloves for the same reason that the woodland streams are not paved with trout; most of the babies don’t make it. )
As D. purpurea suggests, the species flower is purple ( purple-pink, actually, with maroon spots – scroll down to see). But there is a selection: D. purpurea f. albiflora that is, as ITS name suggests, white, and it does pretty well at staying white through generations of mixed breeding.
Foxglove growing tips:
* Alkaline soil helps, but is not essential. What really counts is good drainage. Foxgloves like a lot of moisture but rot swiftly if roots stay wet.
* Foxgloves are often on lists of shade-bloomers, but that doesn’t mean deep shade. They do best where they get filtered light all day or plenty of morning sun.
* Fertilizer makes large plants gigantic, but also makes them more prone to fungus diseases. Don’t use it in damp years or where the plants are crowded ( which is where they are most charming).
* Because plants bloom in their second year and frequently die at the end of same, you have to plant from seed 2 years running to get a good stand of them going. Not difficult, but seed must be fresh for good results. If you have a friend with foxgloves, just ask them to let a stalk go to seed. If you don’t , buy a blooming-size plant from a garden center and do the same. When most of the seedpods have dried ( those on the bottom will have already split) just cut the stalk and wave it around where you want foxgloves. Seed forms in August or September, and baby plants should be up by the end of the season.
* Foxgloves are shallow rooted and frequently heave out of the soil in winter. But it’s hard to get around that with mulch because the plants spring back to life long before the freeze-thaw cycle is over. They’re also prone to rot in prolonged spring damps. The moral: do not move or thin them until after soil settles and weather warms and you know how many you have.
* The secondary spikes will be stronger if you cut those giant lead ones well before all the flowers open, when about a third are still in bud. It’s painful and I don’t always do it but when I do I just put them in a vase. They keep opening for quite a while, though after 5 or 6 days the purple ones start getting paler and paler.
Nomenclature Department: The dominant explanation seems to be that foxglove is a corruption of folksglove, idea being that the flowers are gloves for faeries but faeries do not like to have you say their name and will retaliate unpleasantly. They must be called “the little folk,” preferably in a soft voice that does not attract their attention.
Pretty story but unlikely to be true, given that the earliest use is Old English foxes glofa, which means just what it sounds like it means. Foxes, like faeries, inhabit the hedgerows where these flowers grow, and foxes have smaller paws than you might think.