Digitalis Purpurea: The Essence of Summer

Foxglove and bee

The summer solstice seems an appropriate time to feature one of Britain’s most evocative wild flowers: Digitalis purpurea. Close ups of their spots, hairs and pouting flower lips, combined with dire warnings of their toxicity, help explain why so much lore has been wound around them.

Colourful folk names variously link them to fairies, dragons and witches, while scholars dispute the derivation of their commonest name, foxglove.

Blush pink foxglove

While diminutive wildflowers like Herb Robert are easily overlooked, foxgloves are not. Their tube shaped flowers, held in tall racemes, open from the bottom upwards over several weeks.

Most gardeners’ heads would turn at the sight of these statuesque spires growing in the mass, swaying on the breeze; they are equally attractive to bees and pollinators. Which reminds me – did you spot the hint of a bee’s bottom in the first picture?

Stately foxglove

Overseas, I’ve seen devotees lining out plants in neat, evenly spaced rows like bedding plants. I can understand why this might be done, especially in areas less conducive to growing foxgloves, but I much prefer the naturalistic approach. It’s easy enough to achieve this effect in England: nature often scatters foxgloves around for us, whether we like it or not.

Fortunately for me, because summer wouldn’t feel like summer if I couldn’t see wild foxgloves self-seeded into cracks and crevices; clinging to dry stone walls; clustered in twos or threes along paths or gloomily patrolling the margins of woodland.

Pink foxglove

Tame foxgloves add instant cottage garden style when used as companion plants in mixed flower borders. The Dorothy Clive Garden, where I took these pictures a few days ago, contains many examples of how to plant foxgloves naturalistically.

In my most active gardening days, I would earmark my favourite foxgloves of the year – the ones with unusual flower colours and spotting. When the seeds had dried almost to dust on the plant, I’d wave or bash the plants around upside down in areas where they would be welcome to appear. As all parts of foxgloves are toxic, this was probably unwise. It was effective in terms of raising the succession of plants needed to replace these biennials or short lived perennials, but less so for producing beautiful forms or unusual colours. Almost all turned out to be just plain old pink.

Spotted foxglove

Since then, I’ve had first hand experience of how plant breeding is a numbers game, where good luck, patience and persistence count almost as much as much as skill or experience. If you are partial to the more unusual forms and want to grow them, it makes sense to let professional breeders do the hard work and invest in one of the seed strains, or buy plugs or plants.

Pure, unspotted whites foxgloves available, if that’s what floats your boat. I do like the pale ones, but prefer them freckled. English gardeners can easily source shorter forms too, such as the strawberry coloured Digitalis x mertonensis – the squat, sturdy, perennial foxglove you can just see photobombing the star of the picture above.

Pale pink foxglove

Alternatively, you can do as I do these days: leave the growing to others and just admire any foxgloves you see. Many of us suffer from plant envy now and again, but I’ve come to realise that any plant grown in public is a plant shared.

Field of foxgloves

In some of these pictures, I wanted to highlight the markings on the flowers, while giving a feel for the languid beauty of the whole plant. It’s a slightly different style, and some seem to work better than others, but it was fun to do.

If you’re fascinated by poisonous plants, you might enjoy my earlier post on Rappaccini’s Garden. And please check out Jude’s website The Earth Laughs in Flowers where more garden bloggers will be sharing their take on the essence of summer this month. Happy Solstice!

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