Round Robin: Dramatic Foxgloves

Notes from regional herb gardeners: Elisabeth Sheldon grows several varieties of foxglove for their bright colors adn dramatic history.

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Lansing, New York—Do you grow foxgloves? Plants that send up straight spires of downward-hanging bells from a basal rosette are bound to be appealing. Knowing that some species have been used both to help people with heart trouble and as a poison adds drama. I think of foxgloves as they appear with all their charm in Be­atrix Potter’s illustrations, then in their sinister role in Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane.

At one time, I was growing every foxglove for which I could find seed. Not all of them were as showy as I had expected, but they were all interesting. I started with the most commonly grown species, the biennial Digitalis purpurea. It may grow to a height of 4 to 5 feet in England and other places with gentle climates, but in my garden it attained only 3 feet. Its good-sized bells were mostly a purply pink, lined and blotched with cream and maroon. I wasn’t too happy with D. purpurea until I discovered the cultivar ‘Alba’; the sight of its tall, pure white spires standing against the dark woods garden was most gratifying. The lovely Excelsior Hybrids have large apricot bells that open out to show their interior markings, and the Peloric Hybrids sport a large open flower on top of the stalk.

I’ve also tried D. lanata and D. ferruginea, both of which have small bells and radiate quiet charm rather than splendor. Two-foot-tall D. lanata has bells of gray and yellow with purplish tints, while D. ferruginea produces 2- to 3-foot arched wands of tiny gold and rose tubes.

There are at least two yellow foxgloves. D. grandiflora has 21/2- to 3-foot stems packed with good-sized sulfur yellow bells marked with brown. D. lutea carries slightly smaller pure lemon yellow flowers, and I love it dearly, partly because it’s very pretty and partly because, in my experience, it’s the only true perennial in the genus. I’ve had it for many years standing against a gray shed, where it never fails me.

Although all the species except D. purpurea are listed as perennials, D. grandiflora lasted only two or three years in my garden, and both D. lanata and D. ferruginea disappeared after only one summer of bloom without even contributing seedlings. (D. purpurea leaves many progeny before checking out.) The loveliest foxglove of all, the strawberry pink D. x mertonensis, whose basal rosettes are almost as attractive as its blossoms, usually dies in its second year after flowering, but by gathering seed every year, one can keep it going. The British plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas recommends moving it to prolong its life.

Foxgloves are not fussy about cultural requirements. I suppose they’re all happiest in a situation where they have good garden loam, plenty of moisture, and good drainage. Except for D. purpurea, which prefers light shade, foxgloves grow well in either full sun or part shade. They will, nevertheless, put up bravely with less than perfection.