The joy of growing and using herbs
Foxglove and Ferns
by Rachel McLeod
foxglove (Digitalis spp) is a truly medicinal herb and not one that you
would ever administer to yourself. But how lovely it looks in the garden or in
the herb garden!
People who grew up with foxgloves
will know that there is something magical about the plant. Even its name is
imaginative. Erroneously, it is frequently explained that it is derived from
Folk's glove, that the bell like flower served as gloves for the little folk or
fairies. This always troubled me as a child, all the fairies I knew, real or
imagined were far too small to use the foxglove flowers as mittens. However the
German name for foxglove is Fingerhut or thimble and in 1542 this suggested to
the botanist Leonhard Fuchs that the genus foxglove should be classified under
the botanical name Digitalis (from digitus, the Latin for finger).
The medicinal qualities of the foxglove leaves were discovered in England by
a Dr. William Withering in 1775 when he observed that a local herbal tea was
successful in curing dropsy. He found that the active ingredient was foxglove
leaves; later doctors discovered that the foxglove's action was primarily on the
heart. As well as being a diuretic, it also strengthens and regulates the
heartbeat. Digitalis is still one of the most important heart medicines and has
not been synthesized but is made from the leaves of foxgloves specially grown to
regulate the amount of digitalis in the plant. Digitalis lantana is the
species used for the commercial use and is grown in south eastern Europe. It is
a zone 7 plant and probably not reliably hardy in Canada.
However, other species are hardy and foxgloves make a beautiful addition to
our gardens. The tall, pink spires are elegant in the flower border or
naturalized on the edge of the woodland. The ones we know best are variations on
the common purple foxglove (Digitalis K). All will grow in sun or part
shade, and need very good drainage, a light soil and cool root run. If they are
really happy with their conditions they will self seed freely and sometimes even
make extra rosettes at the base and act as a perennial for a year or two. There
are apricot strains and a white without the usual interior spots. They are
excellent and long lasting as cut flowers.
Two other species are successful
in my garden. One is Digitalis lutea, the yellow foxglove. This is an
unassuming plant, which makes a nice clump and produces small, clear yellow
flowers all through the summer.
The second is one of my favorite plants. It is the Rusty Foxglove (Digitalis
ferruginea). It is so happy here that not only does it act as a perennial
but it self seeds abundantly, always seeming to choose just the right place;
fortunately the seedlings are easy to pull if necessary. It has a handsome
rosette of shiny leaves which persists through the winter and in the second year
grows a tall spike of closely set, small, golden brown flowers. If the plants
are grouped together they are very effective, particularly set against the dark
green background of the cedars where they look like tall, very slim candles.
In the garden foxgloves are particularly beautiful when planted with ferns.
Rather surprisingly, not many ferns have herbal qualities but the ones that
historically have been used are very beautiful and will enhance a shady garden.
In particular the Male fern (Dryopteris felixmas) was used as a
vermifuge to expel tapeworms. It is the brown, scaly root rhizome which is used
as the medicine. From this rhizome, beautifully curled shoots appear in spring.
These lengthen out and grow into large fronds and a well developed plant could
be more than a metre in diameter.
The Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is one of the most fragile
looking plants in the garden. Its delicate divided leaves quiver in the
slightest breeze on the ends of wiry, black stems. The leaves were made into a
tea with honey and used as a hair tonic and to combat asthma and chest ailments
such as coughs or asthma. Although it looks delicate, it is surprisingly tough
and my plants grow in very dry conditions. Good drainage and shade are
For somewhat damper conditions where there is plenty of space, the Ostrich
Fern (Matteuchia pensylvanica) will grow well. Although it does not have
a medicinal reputation it provides the delicious fiddleheads for us to eat in
the early spring. It is easily recognized in the winter by its dark brown
fertile fronds standing upright in groups through the snow and providing winter
interest in the garden. Mark these and you will have a gourmet dish in the
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch,
Ontario in 1974.