Foxgloves and Irises
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Last week I dug up Iris rhizomes that had spread on the floor of what we call the old dog kennel. I have no idea how the first ever iris got into the dog kennel, maybe a seed had been carried by the wind, but when I tackled the kennel floor to try to clear it of weeds, I found that the iris had spread all over. It turns out that the rhizomes are really shallow, barely a few centimetres below the surface of the soil, which makes them really easy to re-plant.
There are plenty of blog posts on the internet about how to replant Iris rhizomes. For example, Lorna Kring has written about the subject in detail here. Lorna has also taught me some things I did not know about the Iris, including that Orris root, the name for the dried, powdered root of Iris germanica, Iris pallida, or Iris florentia, is often used as the base smell in perfumes, and also that it is "one of the 30-plus spices that may be included in ras el hanout, a spice blend used in Morocco and other North African countries that is unique to family and region, much like the Indian garam masala." Who knew? I know I didn't.
Anyway, in keeping with my "impatient gardener" method of gardening, I of course didn't read any of the the online blogs when I started the chore of re-planting. I just got on with it while it was only drizzling, and when there wasn't a frost expected overnight.
Up by Merlin's Wood we’ve been waging a war on brambles. Waging war on brambles is best done in the winter, when their roots are at their most dormant and weakest. So I had an idea of re-planting the iris rhizomes up there, in the bits of de-brambled land. And that's what I did.
Then last week I remembered that the "pig field", up by Merlin's Hide, right next door to the Iris Field, is now full of not just brambles (which we hope will be cleared by a couple of wearers later this year) but it's also spattered with hundreds of Foxglove seedlings.
If you want to know just one single thing about Foxgloves you really should know that they are totally toxic (by totally I mean that every part of the Foxglove, from root to pollen, is toxic) to humans and almost all other animal species. So last week, after some de-brambling, I also started with what has turned into an endless task of digging up and transplanting foxgloves into the Iris Field; which is now known as the Iris & Foxglove field.
To me Foxgloves are the essence of Wales in summer. Just like daffodils are the essence of Wales in spring. They (the common Foxglove variety, known as Digitalis purpurea, thrives everywhere you turn, in boggy soil as well as dry hill slopes. In shady bits of the garden as well the the sunny bits. The tall flower spikes reach right up to the level of your eyes and they are always occupied by at least one bumble bee, which seems to have been built to fit right into the little foxglove flower cups.
I fell in love with these extraordinarily beautiful flowers quite accidentally. And it happened like this: It was a beautiful sunny summer day, quite rare for Wales. I was out pootling (my special word for trespassing) about with Mia and Merl around the back of Paxton‘s Tower, when I stumbled on a mountain slope chock a block full of Foxgloves. And it was BREATHTAKING! Purple Foxgloves EVERYWHERE I turned, spilling down the hillside overlooking the Botanical Gardens. As always, when this kind of magic discovery happens, I didn't have my camera with me and my iPhone was out of juice. All I could do was come home to gush about what I'd seen. And of course when I next returned, with my camera in hand, I found the whole slope had fenced off. Which is such a shame. Because there is a magic to walking among tall spires of Foxglove purple.
So that's how my love for the common Foxglove was kindled. And it has grown over the years, not just because I've discovered that the flowers will pop up every year, where you least expect them, but also because the seeds spread so easily and seem to thrive in every tiny nook and cranny; apparently in Russia prospectors in helicopters on the look out for coal or iron deposits watch for foxgloves growing wildly. That's because foxgloves have an affinity with mineral-rich soil. And that explains their liking our Welsh, mineral rich, and acidic soil.
But it's not just their beauty. They are also a great source of food for bumble bees, and, fascinatingly, they are literally a magical plant, because the humble Foxglove "can raise the dead and it can kill the living".
According to Wikipedia the name "foxglove" was first recorded in 1542 by a German botanist called Leonhard Fuchs (i.e.: Fox). Then the Latin name "digitalis" was used to describe the individual flower of the foxglove, which is said to fit a finger like a glove. I guess. So that's how we ended up with the English name "foxglove".
Although of course folk tales say something completely different. Some say that the name is a testament to the fact that foxes wear the flowers on their paws to silence and disguise their own footprints. After our "chicken massacre" last year - a fox got into our supposedly fox-proof field one morning and quietly and ruthlessly massacred our whole flock - I am completely open to that suggestion.
As to the Welsh name for the common Foxglove, William Henry Fox (I kid you not) Talbot wrote that: “In Welsh this flower is called by the beautiful name of maneg ellyllon, or the fairies’ glove. Now, in the days of our ancestors, as every one knows, these little elves were called in English ‘the good folks.’ No doubt, then, these flowers were called ‘the good folks’ gloves’, a name since shortened into foxgloves [sic]. The plant is called in French gantelée (little glove); in Latin, digitalis, and in German, fingerhut (thimble). It is worthy of remark, that the Greeks appear to have called it by a name which is different from the above, but not inappropriate, the trumpet flower.'"
If you want to find out more about the etymology of the name, this is a great read: https://web.archive.org/web/20130508161659/http://blog.oup.com/2010/11/foxglove/
Or just go to Witchipedia (yep, really!), which records all of these other names for the plant: Goblin Gloves, Witches' Gloves, Dead Men's Bells, Fairy's Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin's Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk's Glove, or Fairy Thimbles.
Anyway, whatever name it goes by, the old saying that the Foxglove can kill the living or or raise the dead really is true:
Foxglove the Death Maker: "when someone eats part of this attractive plant or sucks on the flowers, the glycosides affect cardiac function, causing an irregular heartbeat. Symptoms can also include digestive issues, headache, blurred vision and confusion and can eventually lead to death".
This rule, by the way, applies to all human and just about every animal species, except the Foxglove Pug Moth, Eupithecia pulchellata, which happens to thrive on foxglove flowers.
It's not a very beautiful moth, but given it's resistance to the toxicity of the foxglove, I find it really quite amazing.
Foxglove the Life Giver: These days chemicals extracted from the foxglove are made into anti arrhythmic agents, which basically means that they are used in drugs - Digoxin - that are used to regulate heart beat patterns of individuals with cardiac issues. But it took a while to get there! In the 18th Century William Withering's An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses shows just how it and miss use of the plant was in treatment of individuals with various illnesses. This is his fascinating account of 10 years of his use of the plant on his clients, after he heard of the use of the plant by an old woman in Shropshire. The book can be read here. But even in the 19th Century use of the Foxglove was quite, ummm, hit and miss. For example, some say that Vincent Van Gogh's Yellow Period may have been influenced, or caused, by Foxglove therapy which, at the time, was thought to control epilepsy seizures. One of the side effects of this type of "therapy" was, apparently, that it induced blurry vision and patients would see a "halo" around each point of light.
So that explains my immeasurable love for the common Foxglove; it's that unique combination of beauty and magic all rolled into one. And, most importantly, from the impatient gardener's view point, it seems almost impossible to kill the plant. Which is kind of ironic, given how easy it is for the Foxglove to kills us!
I can only hope that my field will eventually be as beautiful as the Paxton's Tower field, or the one I saw last year in late summer, above Talley Abbey, and of which I did manage to get a half decent photo.
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