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The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring). While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge. Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove. I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them! I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.
Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time. About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump. During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers. The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.
Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth. In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother. Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove. Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril). On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”
Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic. Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights). Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.
Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.” The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.
Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy. If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.
Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms. Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen. The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display. However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms. Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!). It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”
The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides. In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree. It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.
The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring. In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored. Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German). It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful. The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.
Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now. I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring. It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen). It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.
Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!
(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)