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Foxgloves: Rethinking a Fickle Flower

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Foxgloves: Rethinking a Fickle Flower

May 27, 2018

Foxgloves behave like a bad boyfriend. Owing to their biennial nature and a tendency to self-sow freely, foxgloves usually don’t show up when or where you expect them. After they’ve trained you not to rely on them, suddenly you find them standing by the front door, turning on the charm.

But there are ways to make foxgloves do what you want. This spring after the foxgloves arrived early and often, taking charge of my spring garden with flower spikes as tall as six feet, I decided to treat them like cutting flowers. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to transform foxgloves into a simple (and showstopper) floral arrangement.

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

 Every year I plant white common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which blooms in the second year. After that, it does what it wants.
Above: Every year I plant white common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which blooms in the second year. After that, it does what it wants.

Foxgloves multiply, and this spring I have several clumps flowering in the far reaches of the garden. A few errant flowers are blooming in the gravel path. But the real surprise this year was the purple foxgloves: where did they come from? I only plant white ones. The color mutation is just one more show of willfulness.

1. Put foxgloves in water.

I cut an armload of flowering foxgloves, clipping the stems at the base of the plant.
Above: I cut an armload of flowering foxgloves, clipping the stems at the base of the plant.

Foxgloves are thirsty; give them water right away to prevent wilting.

Tip: Before you go out to the garden to cut foxgloves, fill a large vessel—a bucket, florist’s bucket, or pitcher will do—with water and have it waiting for the flowers.

One of the best reasons to cut flowers is it gives you the opportunity to closely examine them. I must have walked past this magenta foxglove in the garden a hundred times. But as I inspected the speckled interior of each velvety flower bell, I wondered if I ever have seen anything even half as magical?
Above: One of the best reasons to cut flowers is it gives you the opportunity to closely examine them. I must have walked past this magenta foxglove in the garden a hundred times. But as I inspected the speckled interior of each velvety flower bell, I wondered if I ever have seen anything even half as magical?

2. Strip leaves off flower stalks.

When you arrange cut flowers, the first step is to strip off the leaves from the bottom third of the stem. In a vase, you don&#8\2\17;t want leaves below the water line, where they will rot and turn yucky.
Above: When you arrange cut flowers, the first step is to strip off the leaves from the bottom third of the stem. In a vase, you don’t want leaves below the water line, where they will rot and turn yucky.

3. Give each flower a fresh cut.

Before placing each stem into the vase, I made a sharply angled fresh cut on the stalk, about two inches from the bottom.
Above: Before placing each stem into the vase, I made a sharply angled fresh cut on the stalk, about two inches from the bottom.

Tip: Give each stalk an angled cut to increase the surface area (enabling it to drink more water).

4. Choose the right vase.

A clear glass Evelyn Large Vase has a fluted rim to hold each tall stem in place; \$\26.95 at Crate & Barrel.
Above: A clear glass Evelyn Large Vase has a fluted rim to hold each tall stem in place; $26.95 at Crate & Barrel.
As I stripped leaves from each stalk, I placed it in a vase, working from the outside in and saving the tallest, prettiest stems for the center of the arrangement.

Tip: For tall, thick-stemmed flowers such as foxgloves (or, say, sunflowers) a high-sided vase—such as a graduated cylinder—is the best choice to hold each stem upright while allowing it to fall gently outward.

5. Allow foxgloves to drape over the vase.

 Bent, crooked, and twisty foxglove stalks are useful because they will soften the lines of a floral arrangement and prevent it from looking too stiff.
Above: Bent, crooked, and twisty foxglove stalks are useful because they will soften the lines of a floral arrangement and prevent it from looking too stiff.

6. Mix and match foxglove colors.

 It&#8\2\17;s OK to mix a lot of colors; the fact that all the flowers are foxgloves—and therefore the same shape, size, and texture—is enough to lend coherence to the arrangement.
Above: It’s OK to mix a lot of colors; the fact that all the flowers are foxgloves—and therefore the same shape, size, and texture—is enough to lend coherence to the arrangement.
With such tall stalks, you don&#8\2\17;t need any filler flowers or foliage; foxgloves create plenty of drama on their own.
Above: With such tall stalks, you don’t need any filler flowers or foliage; foxgloves create plenty of drama on their own.
The best way to create a steady supply of foxglove flowers is to plant some every year (a biennial plant, it takes two years to bloom).
Above: The best way to create a steady supply of foxglove flowers is to plant some every year (a biennial plant, it takes two years to bloom).

Tip: Foxgloves are easy to start from seed; more than two dozen varieties of Foxglove Seeds (in colors such as white, apricot, rose, purple, peach, and cream) are available for $1.99 to $3.99, depending on variety, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

7. Do not eat any part of a foxglove plant.

Don&#8\2\17;t eat flowers, leaves, stalks or any other part of a foxglove plant—and don&#8\2\17;t let your pets or children eat foxgloves. Digitalis purpurea produces digitoxin, a poisonous substance which slows heart rates dramatically; fatalities have been documented.
Above: Don’t eat flowers, leaves, stalks or any other part of a foxglove plant—and don’t let your pets or children eat foxgloves. Digitalis purpurea produces digitoxin, a poisonous substance which slows heart rates dramatically; fatalities have been documented.

The medicinal powers of digitoxin as a treatment for congestive heart failure came to the attention of English physician William Withering in the late 18th century. In his book, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of Its Medical Uses, Withering described how in 1785 he heard of a medicine that “had long been kept a secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the regular practitioners had failed.”

Although the herbalist’s concoction contained 20 or more different ingredients, “it was not very difficult for one conversant these subjects, to perceive, that the active herb could be no other than the foxglove.”

Over the next decade, Withering treated dozens of patients successfully with the medication, which cardiologists still use today to treat some heart problems.

8. Keep adding water to the vase.

As cut flowers go, foxgloves are heavy drinkers. I&#8\2\17;ve been adding a quart of water to the vase daily; my arrangement is still going strong on Day 6.
Above: As cut flowers go, foxgloves are heavy drinkers. I’ve been adding a quart of water to the vase daily; my arrangement is still going strong on Day 6.

N.B.: It’s simple to cut and arrange flowers from your garden if you have all the materials handy. Make it easy on yourself by assembling everything you need ahead of time:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully grow foxgloves in the garden with Foxgloves: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design and more ideas on companion plants for foxgloves in our curated guides to Perennials 101.

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