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!

39 Replies to “Digitalis Purpurea: The Essence of Summer”

  1. These are so beautiful. I have a vivid memory of a picture of a Mrs. Fox in a children’s book, ready to go out with her purse and hat and … fox gloves, obviously the flower!

    1. You’ve drawn a very clear picture in my mind. Children often pay such close attention to book illustrations – I remember gazing at some Rupert Bear pictures.

  2. I love foxgloves. They are one of the few flowers i allow to self seed themselves as they will around the garden. I have a mutant this year – just one large bloom.

    1. I saw a few at the Dorothy Clive Garden with a bigger, more rounded flower on the top, but I’ve never seen one that was just one large bloom.

  3. Ah, your foxglove photos are incredible. I know how hard they are to photograph! And like you I much prefer them in their natural setting. Lovely to see the bee disappearing up the flower! And the ones around me are all purple!

    1. I love hydrangeas too. We were at Holehird Gardens in the Lake District yesterday. They have a wonderful hydrangea collection, though we’ll have to wait a good bit longer to see them in full flower in this part of the world

  4. Hi Susan. I’ve very much enjoyed reading through some of your blog posts and your images are really lovely. Lots of the places that you like are places that I’ve also visited and really enjoyed! Suddenly the world seems a little smaller. Shall enjoy reading and viewing your perspective. Simone

      1. I started my blog a year or so ago in an attempt to ‘normalise’ my life! I’m possibly not the most regular at posting, but have starting working on it a little more as I enjoy the mindfulness of photography and my posts. I’m trying to be more of a reader as well these days as well. I’m enjoying your photographs thank you. Simone

  5. Foxgloves – one of my favourite summer flowers, at home on the Isle of Wight, they grew everywhere, as a child I never knew they were poisonous, but no harm ever came to us! We didn’t have them in the garden, to us they were always wild plants that grew in hedgerows around the farm, we would spot them whilst out riding our ponies in the middle of nowhere. Now I live in France with my husband and our five children. We have foxgloves in the garden, they were already here, the first summer I saw them I was so happy, I knew it was a sign that this would be a fantastic family home.

    1. It’s funny how flowers can reassure us and move us. I played among foxgloves too as a child, but then I remember freely doing all sorts of things that would be seen as potentially deadly now.

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