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Foxglove: hummingbirds' and bees' best friend

May 1, 2012 |  8:44 am

Foxglove flower purpleIn the herb section of Fountain Avenue Community Garden, one plant jumps out: It rises a couple of feet high and boasts a cascade of purple blooms, the throat of each open flower sprinkled with distinctive dark spots. The foxgloves are in bloom.

They’re spectacular now in the early morning but more dramatic at night seen under a black light, gardener Derbeh Vance says. “They’re fluorescent,” he says. “Bees see in ultraviolet light, and it’s like a landing strip for them.”

Charlene Gawa, the gardener who oversees the herb garden, laughs when asked if the plant is edible. “This is the second year, so it’s really potent,” she says. “It’s a stimulant and your heart will run. It’s good if you want to kill someone.”

She planted the flower for its ability to attract hummingbirds and bees. Native to the Mediterranean, North Africa, Europe and western Asia, Foxglove has a host of evocative names, particularly in English: dead men’s bells, bloody fingers, witches’ gloves, fairy caps. It’s toxic but medically helpful, used to make the heart medicine digitalis. It spreads like a weed, thriving on granite and rocky landscapes, and was once thought to be planted by fairies, popping up in any recently broken land.

Poisonous to animals, it’s a dramatic biennial plant -- comfortable in the shade and used by designers to brighten a dark corner. Seed scattered now will bloom the second year, and there’s a full palette available: white, yellow, rose, burgundy. Seeds are available from Burpee and many garden centers. Swallowtail Garden Seeds sells a vigorous hybrid that has an extended growing season and doesn’t set seeds. Once the flower is done, dispose of the detritus -- especially seed heads -- with caution.

Next week: Valerian, a dog and cat pleaser

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, usually appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

 -- Jeff Spurrier

Foxglove flower whiteA beauty in white.


Foxglove foliageA flower stalk rising.

Photo credit: Ann Summa


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