Beautiful but Deadly

An open field, scattered with tall spikes of red-purple, tubular flowers gently waving in the warm breeze. Hummingbirds flit stem to stem gathering nectar.

Foxglove (royalty free, Unsplash)

Downside? It can kill you.

What do you know about this beautiful and common, plant? Test your knowledge in this 10 question true or false quiz. Answers at the end.

True or False?

  1. Foxglove is native to western and southwestern Europe, western and central Asia, and northwestern Africa.  
  2. Foxglove flowers can be yellow.   
  3. A common name for this plant was ‘witch’s glove.’ 
  4. It takes two years to get a bloom.  
  5. Plants thrive on recently disturbed acidic soils.     
  6. All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans.   
  7. Inhaling the pollen can affect some people. 
  8. Wear gloves when collecting, handling fresh and dried materials. 
  9. Chemicals from Foxgloves are used for making heart medicine.   
  10. The chemicals from Foxgloves were thought to control seizures.

The Answers

If you said true to all of these statements, you were right!  Want to know more? Here are the backstories:

  1. Foxgloves are very common but not native to our area. They are native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
  2. Flowers can be purple, pink, fuchsia, white, and yellow. Breeders are working on new colors such as peach. Flowers can have various marks and spotting. Bloom color will change as flowers age.
  3. There were several common names for this plant (not all complementary) including: ‘witch’s glove’, ‘dead man’s bells’, and ‘fox’s glove’.
  4. Foxglove is a biennial plant, meaning it completes a full lifecycle (including reseeding) in two years.  
  5. Plants will routinely colonize disturbed areas, especially if the soil is a bit acid and well drained. Locations can include woodlands, sea-cliffs, mountain slopes, and open fields.
  6. Beautiful but deadly. All parts of this plant, fresh and dried, are poisonous. Even deer and rabbits will leave them alone. There have been cases where deadly foxglove leaves were confused with harmless comfrey leaves.
  7. Pollen can contain a tiny amount of digoxin which is a type of cardiac glycosides.  
  8. As a general rule, wear gloves when collecting, arranging, or cleaning up garden debris. Foxgloves were probably one of the plants that rule was made for as even a tiny bit of sap transferred from glove to shovel handle can be a problem.  
  9. Digoxin, extracted from several varieties of Foxglove is used to create medicines for congestive heart failure and seizures.
  10. Foxglove is no longer used for seizures. It is thought that Vincent van Gogh may have been influenced during his “Yellow Period” by digitalis therapy used to control seizures.  

REFERENCES:
–Better Homes and Gardens (https://www.bhg.com)
–Wikipedia, Foxglove (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digitalis)
Foxglove Flower Alert, Whats Cooking America (https://whatscookingamerica.net)
–Gardening Know How, Foxglove (https://www.gardeningknowhow.com)

What’s that pretty little herb with yellow and violet disk flowers?

Pacific Asters (or common California aster) are a native perennial found along the Pacific coast. It inhabits coastal mountains, salt marshes, coastal dunes and bluffs, coastal scrub, and open or disturbed areas.

Courtesy NRCS, Annie Young-Mathews, 2010

This particular aster is very versatile and can be used in bird, butterfly, and bee gardens!

There are nearly 50 different kinds of native asters here in the Pacific Northwest. Asters are part of a very large and diverse plant family call Asteraceae. Despite its Latin name (chilense), it does not occur in Chile.

Fall Food Source

Pacific Aster grows 1- to 3-feet tall and hold cheery disk-shaped blooms on a stalk (inflorescence) in late summer through fall. It provides a late-season food source for all kinds of pollinators including moths, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

This structure attracts many beneficial flying butterflies and insects such as:

  • Northern Checkerspot, Field Crescent and Pearl Crescent butterflies
  • Wavy-lined emerald, Salt-and-pepper-Geometer, Dingy Cutworm, and Olive-shaded bird-dropping moths. 

Flower heads have yellow disk center florets and fringes of many narrow light purple ray florets. Its hairy leaves are narrowly oval-shaped, pointed, and with finely serrated edges.

Propagation and Spread

Pacific Asters spread by rhizomes. The fibrous root system digs deep in to the soil making this plant good at stabilizing slopes and drought tolerant once established. Pacific Asters do not like soggy roots in the winter.

An early spring prune (one-third to one-half) will make the plants more bushy and wind tolerant more wind. Deadheading during the season produces more flowers. At season end, the plants can be cut or mowed to the ground in winter. Likes full sun to partial shade.

Propagate your own from seed: No treatment needed. Seeds may have little fluffy bits attached which help them carry in the wind. This fluff does not need to be detached. Just sprinkle a handful of collected seed fluff in the desired area in the spring and watch for sprouts with a week. Caution when weeding! It will look like a common weed so be aware when pulling.

A wide variety of asters are now available through several nurseries. They are great companion plants that work well with other shrubs and perennials along the coast.

Even better? This aster will tolerate high salinity, there are no known pests or problems, and they are deer resistant!

REFERENCES:
–USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Fact Sheet for Pacific Asters (http://plants.usda.gov)
–HGTV (https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/flowers-and-plants/aster-flowers)
–Wikipedia, symphyotrichum chilense (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphyotrichum_chilense)
–Watershed Nursery, plant finder (https://www.watershednursery.com/nursery/plant-finder/symphyotrichum-chilensis/)
–Portland Nursery (https://www.portlandnursery.com/perennials/aster/)

Slough sedge (royalty free from Unsplash)

Sedge grows well along the Pacific Coast. Slough sedge can be found along the coast from British Columbia south to northern California.

This evergreen sedge is not a grass, but can take the place of a grass in wet and shallow bogs, marshes, and riverbanks. It also does well in meadows, ditches, swamps, and muddy areas.

There is only one sedge in our area. The sedge will grow in salty, marshy, and freshwater areas.

Carex obnupta is often found growing near Skunk cabbage (watch for the large yellow flowers).

Slough sedge is available commercially and easily propagated.

Importance

Why this lowly plant is important? It is key to maintaining wetlands functioning. The perennial sedge performs several functions such as:

  • Helping to control and maintain stream banks by minimizing erosion and improving stream structure.
  • Slowing sediment flow allows the nutrients to settle. This generates a nutrient rich habitat and improves water quality.
  • Abating storm water.
  • Supporting wetland species.

Rhizomes

C. obnupta accomplishes these tasks in several ways.

The horizontal, creeping rhizomes (root-like structures) help anchor the plant. The rhizome shoots can also generate new plants creating new Sedge tufts (or clumps) about a foot wide.

A dense, underwater rhizome network develops as the clumps grow into larger beds or colonies.  

Concealing Vegetation

The uneven tufted surface provides concealment, nesting, and bedding for many birds and mammals.  

The tall (up to four feet) male spikes rise above the shorter female flowers. Additional vegetative stems help conceal nest and bedding areas.

Slough sedge (Royalty free Unsplash)

Reproduction

Male flowers spikes typically rise above the female flowers and have yellow pollen at peak bloom time. Female flowers have a white sticky substance for collecting the pollen. Dark, lens-shaped seeds are stratified over the winter.

The fertile and non-fertile stems have different shapes. A cross-section cut of the fertile stems will reveal a triangular shape. Non-fertile, or vegetative stems without flowers have a “W” shape and were harvested for basketmaking.

The process of harvesting helps to move nutrients in that the process of creating more leaves transports nutrients from the rhizomes.  

Wildlife Supported

Birds: Several birds take advantage of the foliage for bedding, nesting, and consume sedge seeds. Birds include game and other marsh/shore/song birds).

Wetland mammals: Muskrats, minks, beavers, and otters use the foliage to conceal their travel.

Insects: Several butterflies and moths are supported including:

  • Umber Skipper (Poanes melane),
  • Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia),
  • American Ear Moth (Amphipoea americana),
  • Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris),
  • Olive Green Cutworm Moth (Dargida procinctus),
  • Elachista cucullate, and
  • Lesser Wainscot (Mythimna oxygala).

NOTE: Slough sedge is considered invasive in some areas and is very difficult to remove.

REFERENCES:
–East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (https://emswcd.org/slough-sedge/)
–USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Slough sedge brochure (www.plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_caob3.pdf
–Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carex_obnupta)
–Univ. of Washington, Bothell (https://www.uwb.edu/wetlands/plants/carex-obnupta)
–California Native Plant Society (https://calscape.org/Carex-obnupta-())