June is the month for foxgloves. As spectacular and resilient a flower as you will find, the foxglove’s flowers reach upwards arrayed along the length of its stately spike to catch the sun. The foxglove can grow to several feet in height, with many thimble-shaped flowers which always grow on the same side of the stalk. In its wild form the flowers are purple, but they have been bred and hybridised to offer a delight of many hues from red to yellow, sometimes even producing different colours on the same plant. Outside the kitchen window we enjoy a plant with pinkish flowers lower on the stalk, turning to a bright yellow at the top.
The foxglove is perfectly evolved for honey bees, which bury themselves deep in the bell of the flower, following dark blotches and white hairs which lead them to nectar, with fertilisation a bonus by-product for the plant. The flowers stay open for about six days, drawing in bees and other insects, including some which use the build-up of heat in the shelter of the bell to stay warm and escape the worst of the cold early summer evenings, like those we have experienced recently. While they can flower from June to September, this is perhaps the richest time of the year for this loveliest of plants.
Foxgloves are biennial, producing seeds one year and flowers the next, though some cultivars are perennial, flowering every year. The seed is best sown outdoors in April in a shady border, with seedlings transplanted to their flowering positions in September. Then, just leave them. Once you have foxgloves in your garden, you should never be without them. Each plant can produce up to two million seeds, which will be carried by wind and insects to open and take root in the most unlikely places. They seem to thrive naturally in the driest of places, setting their roots in apparently waterless cracks in walls, and in the angle between the side of the house and the ground below, be it concrete yard, stone path or soil. Some people say they cannot get foxgloves established, and I can only ask whether you might be too tidy in your habits. Certainly spraying will not help, and over vigorous sweeping might just remove that crucial millimetre or two of earth and dust that the seed needs to get itself established. It is one of the delights of spring to discover where the next generation of foxgloves are going to sprout.
The suspicion is that the foxglove is not as widespread as it once was in Ireland. Of its many local names, “cottagers” suggests that it was once more prolific around habitation. “Fairy bells” is another Irish variation, with the bell-shaped flowers offering accommodation for the littlest of the little fairy folk; some argue that “fox” is a corruption of “folk”, as in the fairy folk. “Glove” could also be a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon “gliew”, a musical instrument with many small bells. Irish names focus on fairies and thimbles, such as méaracán na mban sídhe – thimbles of the fairy women. The Germans use the word “Fingerhut” for both foxglove and thimble.
Foxglove can be a dangerous plant – digitalis purpurea. Foxglove was the original source of the drug digitalis, in use since 1785 as a heart stimulant. It also contains a powerful ant repellent. It is a plant we rarely see at Cabragh, though it flourishes in many parts of the county. If you have it, you are blessed.