Plant of the month: May foxgloves

One of the most positive things about gardening is that you live in the now and look to the future simultaneously. Never is that more tangible than at this time of year. As May is burgeoning into June all my biennials are beginning to bloom. As I watch them I sow the same varieties (often from last year’s collected seed) to plant out in the Autumn. These will be next year’s blooms. The perfect cycle.

I sow sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty every year. Forget me nots self-seed prolifically in our garden as do my particular favourites – foxglove although I usually sow some as well. We have several shady parts of our garden and these do well in shade or sun so are one of my utility plants for early Summer. In places here they are surrounded by ferns and campanula; in others by bronze fennel or quaking grass; some do their thing among euphorbia and sweet woodruff. I love them all and the folklore that accompanies them.

Foxgloves contain digitalis and other cardiac glycosides and so it’s best to use gloves when handling the plants. These chemicals affect the heart. It’s poisonous although recorded poisonings from this plant are very rare. In fact an old Welsh legend proclaims the foxglove’s connection to the most celebrated physicians in Wales. Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could use that famous Welsh rhetoric on her. He returned every evening looking for her and eventually he asked advice from a wise man. The answer was cheese – inevitable if you’re attempting to attract a Celtic woman, I’d have thought. I’d go a long way for a decent hunk of cheese. Sure enough the cheese gift worked, she came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

The sons grew and Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told him he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. The three sons opened it and found a list of all medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous physicians in all of Wales.

Foxgloves are fairy plants too. In the Scottish borders, foxglove leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason. Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, either because it robs the fairies of a plant they love or they allow the devil into the house. I never pick them for the vase because they do such sterling work in the garden. These flowers are universally connected with women. In Roman times, the foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora and has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets – we all have a few of these – but by the Victorian era they had become a much more negative symbol of insincerity.

Easy to sow and excellent self-seeders, foxgloves are well worth starting off now to flower next year. It’s good to have something to look forward to.

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