An enduring memory of our visit to Hidcote Manor Garden in Gloucestershire was a simple planting of white foxgloves. They stood like grand white sentinels, belying their humble botanical status. A packet of white foxglove seed was top of the list on our next seed order.
Common foxgloves – and the white is just a form of the common Digitalis purpurea – are not difficult to grow. Not at all. We let some pink ones seed down through the park and in outlying garden areas. I think our widespread, dismissive attitude to foxgloves has to do with an earlier rural orientation in this country where such plants are seen as noxious weeds. But we are not farmers, so some seeding wildflowers naturalised on our property are not a problem, adding to biodiversity and providing a food source for insects.
The whites I wanted for my rose and perennial garden. After a few years, I am now moving them. They are too big and choke and swamp the smaller perennials I have in that area. I have found a couple of spots which they can have all to themselves. I was amused to see English gardener, Keith Wiley – for whom we have huge respect – on TV talking about growing plants in colonies but noting that some plants are so dominant that they do not want to grow in colonies. He cited foxgloves as an example. They are way too thuggish to co-exist happily with many other plants.
I could have saved myself a lot of trial and error if I had looked to the ground where the Hidcote foxgloves grew and taken note of what else did or did not grow there and how much space each huge rosette of leaves occupied. Instead, I was so enchanted by the summer display at eye level that I failed to observe further.
Carol Klein on BBC’s Gardeners’ World, once said that she sorted her foxgloves as juvenile plants – the pink ones had pink veining in the leaves and the crown whereas the white ones were all green. I am not convinced she is right though I went through a stage of culling all pink-veined seedlings. I am happy to stand corrected if somebody has been more systematic in assessing this, but I am pretty sure that I have pink-veined ones flowering white and vice versa.
What I can tell you from experience is that foxgloves have very large tops but small root systems so are easy to transplant even when quite large, as long as I reduce the foliage by anything up to 75%. They are tough. I am hoping by next year to have my white Hidcote sentinels flowering in abundance in positions where they can be glorious without smothering other plants.