Stately bells of foxgloves
Arching to the sun with their distinctive cascade of blooms, foxgloves are a welcome sight in the June garden
Agently humming bumblebee disappears into a nodding tubular flower rising above a border. On an early summer day, it is a sight to savour. Flushed with rich colour and delicately speckled, the foxglove is a plant synonymous with the quintessential English country garden. The flowers possess a timeless beauty, as natural as it is exquisite. Once summer is gone, there is a yearning to see this popular bloom again and again. For Terry Baker, of The Botanic Nursery in Wiltshire, every foxglove season is savoured. He has held the National Collection of foxgloves for more than 30 years and holds a ‘foxglove week’ at his two-acre nursery every year. Visitors can walk among the plants and enjoy the delights and diversity of this much-loved flower. The common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is native to Britain. “I think the appeal of this foxglove lies in the familiarity of the flowers,” says Terry. “Foxgloves are a plant that everyone knows. And because of this, people have the confidence to try more unusual forms too.”
The foxglove does not only appeal to gardeners, it is also a magnet for bees. Its flowers are designed to attract the long-tongued variety. “Each flower has guard hairs inside it, which stop smaller insects from being able to efficiently pollinate the flowers,” explains Terry. “Smaller foxglove species, such as D. lanata and D. lutea, have smaller flowers and attract smaller bees.” The Purpurea types of foxglove tend to have the most flowers, capable of producing more than 100 on a single spike. They can also produce more than 2,000 seeds per plant, which is why they colonise an area if the conditions are suitable for germination. It is the foxglove’s ability to set seed for the future that makes it a shrewd garden investment. For seed to germinate, the ground needs to be exposed to light. This is why foxgloves are not prolific in densely planted borders, because the seeds fall where light cannot reach them. As a rule of thumb, all forms of Digitalis purpurea are best considered biennial plants. This means they do not flower in their first year, and after flowering in their second year, they will set seed and die.
Most modern hybrid foxgloves are perennials. These produce ‘true’ plants, with the same colour flowers, from seed. “Pure colour forms are the best to save seed from if you want plants to be the same as the original,” says Terry. “Approximately 40 per cent of the seeds sown from different coloured forms of D. purpurea will come true. In theory, they can display
flowers of any shade or degree of spotting found in Digitalis purpurea. It’s best to keep a plant in isolation and save all the seed from it, then blanket plant a whole area.” The rich diversity of foxgloves that Terry is so keen for gardeners to discover satisfies many tastes, and all grow well in the UK. There are many variations on the common foxglove. Some have subtle differences, while others have flowers that contrast noticeably in form and colour. Despite the name Purpurea, the flowers of the common foxglove can look more pink than purple when they begin to open, before revealing their true colours. However, perennial Digitalis thapsi has rich-pink flowers above soft, hairy foliage. It is shorter than the common foxglove, reaching approximately 20in (50cm) tall, whereas D. purpurea can reach 5ft (1.5m) in height.
There are many foxgloves from other countries that also grow well in the British climate. While the common foxglove grows best in dappled shade, in a soil that stays moist, Digitalis obscura, from Spain, prefers an open and sunny site. It requires sharply drained soil and good air circulation to help prevent fungal disease, which it can be prone to.
It is an ideal foxglove to grow towards the edge of a rockery and reaches just 18in (45cm) tall. Another foxglove that thrives in well-drained soil is the Turkish foxglove, Digitalis cariensis ‘Trojana’. It tends to flourish in a well-lit spot in the garden. The flowers are a sight to behold, bearing an unusual mix of yellow and brown mottled throats on the inside of the flowers and pale purple streaks on the outside. It reaches 4ft (1.2m) in height. Digitalis heywoodii, from Portugal, has unmissable silvery foliage with white hairs, which give it a furry appearance. The white flowers make it a great choice for a garden with a cool colour scheme. It requires excellent drainage and needs to be grown in full sun to do well, reaching 20in (50cm). Terry’s favourite variety for foliage is D. x mertonensis, which has wide, dark green leaves, resplendent like those of a hosta. It also produces very large warm-pink flowers, despite having a final height of just 30in (75cm), and will flower well in both sunny and shady positions.
Spread and height
As well as foxgloves from western and central Europe, some originate from cooler parts of the continent. Digitalis ‘Vesuvius’ hails from the coldest parts of Eastern Europe. It is good for general planting in herbaceous borders because it has a branching habit, helping it to blend in with other plants and create a full border. The flushed pink flowers reach approximately 30in (75cm) tall, surrounded by grey leaves. One of the best-selling foxgloves in the National Collection is a biennial form, ‘Pam’s Choice’, which has distinctive flowers with contrasting colours. “I think it is because of its mix of purple splodges and pure white in the flowers,” says Terry. It is a tall variety, reaching up to 5ft (1.5m). Another foxglove that is rising in popularity is Digitalis ferruginea, which is ideal for adding height when designing a planting scheme for a garden. “It is a very good landscaping plant because its flower spikes add a vertical accent, reaching up to 5ft (1.5m) tall,” he adds. “The flower spikes are very narrow and work well in a naturalistic planting scheme.” The flowers are pale yellow on the outside and dark reddish-brown inside, and are packed very closely
together on their stems. Another yellow foxglove is D. lutea, a hardy variety that grows well in deep shade.
Due to the ability of foxgloves to set hundreds of viable seeds from one plant, they can create a meadow of colour in summer. In smaller gardens, giving so much space to them is an indulgence if a wide variety of plants is desired. Foxgloves make good bedfellows with other plants, however. Easy to transplant, they can be moved if their seedlings do not complement the colours of the plants around them or if they are needed to pair with different plants. Terry believes the most effective partners for foxgloves are roses, which share their suitability for clay soil and blend with the palette of colours that foxgloves display. He singles out D. ‘Apricot’: “The colour of its flowers seem to go extremely well with all roses, without ever creating a colour clash,” he says. “It is important not to plant foxgloves too close together because if the ground is shaded, the seed will not germinate. Then, if a couple of years later you move some shrubs, the foxgloves will start coming up again.” He advises gardeners to be selective when planting in a mixed border. “Move foxgloves to where you want them to go. You can even move them when the flower spikes have formed,” he says. Whatever the conditions and colour scheme of the garden, there is a whole world of foxgloves to meet every gardener’s needs. With its statuesque spears and bell-shaped flowers dipping coyly as if unaware of their singular beauty, the foxglove will always be part of the vision of the perfect summer garden.
Due to their fibrous root systems, foxgloves are also suitable for growing in containers.
Foxgloves, like this Digitalis purpurea ‘Camelot Lavender’ are ideal for adding an attractive vertical accent to a border.
Dotted through a border in a cottage garden, foxgloves add interest above a swathe of green.
Digitalis thapsi has slender flowers with a paler throat.
Woolly-spiked Digitalis lanata has cream or pale yellow flowers veined in brown, with a lower, pearly lip.
Delicate Digitalis lutea, also known as the small yellow foxglove or straw foxglove.
The tall, dense spikes of Gloxinioides Group foxgloves raise the eye to the furthest corners of the garden (top). A bee hovers near pollen hooded in a fuchsiacoloured bloom (left).
Terry Baker tends to his collection. He holds a foxglove week when they are flowering in June at his Wiltshire nursery, with daily talks and tours.
Foxgloves blend well with roses to create a mix of summer pinks (far left). According to expert Terry Baker, D. ‘Apricot’ with its pale pink flowers complements summer roses particularly well.