Stately bells of fox­gloves

Arch­ing to the sun with their dis­tinc­tive cas­cade of blooms, fox­gloves are a wel­come sight in the June gar­den

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - Words: Greg Loades Pho­tos: Ja­son Ingram; GAP Pho­tos

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.

Repli­cat­ing colour

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.

Sun-lov­ing va­ri­eties

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.

Plant­ing part­ners

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.

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