Foxgloves – the fine line between weed, wildflower and garden plant

I like foxgloves, in a wild flower sort of way. But the common pinky-purple form around here, not so much. In fact I have been pulling them out this week. I haven’t gone to the effort of trying to get white and pale ones established to see them all gradually returning to that hard shade of deep pink. I had a pretty honey peach coloured one that flowered in isolation in a gravel heap last year and left it to seed, thinking that as it was standing alone, the seedlings would be the same colour. There were over a hundred seedlings and at least half have gone back to the deep pink colour I spurn. I have been pulling them out as soon as they reveal their true colours to try and preempt the bees cross pollinating.

No the left, yes to the right

This unceremonious rooting out of the spurned colour was because of a series of photos I saw recently showing a local garden’s ‘English-style herbaceous planting’. Leaving aside the somewhat dodgy descriptor, what struck me was the jarring appearance of the common deep pink foxglove in a more refined garden setting. To my eye, it would have worked were these white or pastel, but in that hard colour – no thanks. It takes a deft touch to bring a local weed into a garden and make it appear harmonious.

The range of shades with the common wild form to the right

On my rounds of dealing to the plants whose sole crime is that they are an undesirable colour, I see that most of the seedlings from the pure whites we had are now more pastel. Naturally I wanted to pick an array of them to arrange in gradations of hue. There is quite a bit of variation in the size of the flowers too. Some have freckles and some don’t. I like the peachy tones more than the pale pinks.

Some tried to outwit me by opening creamy lemon and ageing to purple, all on the same stem, but I can see them!

I resisted the temptation to go back to childhood habits and use them as gloves for my finger tips. In those days, we didn’t worry about their toxic properties. These days they come with a warning so I try and wash my hands after handling them without gloves. But on the scale of poisonous plants, they aren’t up there with the most toxic ones.

There are about 20 different species of foxgloves but only Digitalis purpurea has naturalised in the countryside here. I bought some seed of a yellow variant from a local supplier but Mark tells me that only one germinated. It will take years of culling to get the more desirable shades established as the dominant plant here.

The best ornamental planting I have seen remains the white foxgloves at Hidcote that first inspired me to look more closely at this plant. I wonder if they start afresh each season or let them seed down? But maybe they don’t have any other colours around to contaminate the purity of the white strain.

Mark was raised on the flower fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. I can’t think how my English mother ever missed out on introducing them to me, especially as the author bears the same uncommon spelling of her first name as my mother did. But we raised our own children with them.  Though if I am honest, the charm lies more in the illustrations and the small book format than in the poetry which  never scanned sufficiently well to read aloud comfortably.

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What do you see?”
The cool green woodland,
The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,
I’ve honey here for thee!

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What see you now?”
The soft summer moonlight
On bracken, grass, and bough;
And all the fairies dancing
As only they know how.

Cicely Mary Barker, 1927.

13 thoughts on “Foxgloves – the fine line between weed, wildflower and garden plant

  1. Lyndel Haynes

    Yes , started pulling out the deep pink ones yesterday. They are all wrong in my garden in town

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes. I just saw a nice photo of a bold, pure white foxglove in somebody’s town garden. Fine tuning and an eye for detail can be everything.

  2. tonytomeo

    I thought that everyone preferred those bright pink foxglove! I felt somewhat badly about ‘accidentally’ pulling up ‘some’ of them to favor the lighter pink flowers, as well as the rare white flowers. Not many get pulled here because they are not as prolific or aggressive as they are in the Northwest. White is my all time favorite. The apricot and almost purple varieties are available in nurseries, and I see them in gardens at work. There is no point in us trying to eradicate them from our landscapes (not that I would want them ‘all’ gone) because so much of what grows in the neighborhood gardens tosses seed our way. I do happen to like them, even if the colors are a bit too bright.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Tony, I had been thinking of you and hoping you are well out of way of the fires. In a country which rarely has major fires, it is impossible to imagine the impact. But I see we are as one on foxgloves. The common pinky purple one is regarded as a pastoral weed here as it thrives on farmland and stock won’t touch it so it can bloom, seed and reproduce with no hindrance.

      1. tonytomeo

        We are out of the way of the major fires so far. There happened to be another fire just a few miles away, but it was contained before many of us even knew about it. A big storm is expected on Wednesday. Fire season will be over as soon as mud slide season starts.

  3. Tim Dutton

    Reading this article reminded us to go outside for a frenzy of dark pink foxglove removal where they had popped up in the wrong places. We’ve been ruthlessly removing them from much of the garden over many years in order to encourage the white ones to flourish instead and this has worked very well. We’ve probably got to about 80% white now, with a few pale pinks in a couple of spots. We’ve left in the dark pink where their backdrop is Clematis ‘H.F. Young’: the colours go really well together in that instance. Early removal of the ‘wrong’ colour has been helped by us realising that if the young plants in year 1 show any signs of pink on the leaf stalks then they won’t flower white in the following year: the white ones are always all green. Ours can grow up to 2.5m tall, so they certainly make a bold statement for a few weeks.
    We sowed some yellow ones too, 3 years ago, but although we managed reasonable germination they didn’t grow as strongly as the whites and I can’t recall seeing any that have self-seeded and stayed yellow. We have had a lot more success with the short-lived perennial Digitalis x mertonensis, with its shorter flowers of a dusky strawberry pink.
    One oddity we had appear 2 years ago was a ‘Monstrosa’ flower form on one of the white ones, where the terminal flowers have fused to form one large open flower with radial symmetry. This seems to be a rare genetic variant, but having read that it will come true from seed I collected some from the parent plant and the seedlings flowered this year. Only one of the seedlings was the standard pink and it wasn’t a monstrosa , so was duly pulled out. About 60% of the seedlings were ‘standard’ white, the rest have various degrees of fused terminal flowers. They aren’t charming in the way a standard white foxglove is, but they are much shorter, and confined to one spot make an interesting talking point.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I had a discussion on Facebook about pink leaf veins meaning pink flowers. I first heard Carol Klein on Gardener’s World give this advice and promptly rushed out to pull out all pink veined clumps. But over the season, I noticed some I missed and pink veined ones that flowered very pale to white and some all green ones that flowered pink so I discarded that advice. Maybe I need to have a second look at this aspect and double check. I wonder if we now have so many pale ones that are a cross between the purple and the white that it no longer holds true? I think mertonensis is the form we lost after it bravely battled on for many years.

  4. Tim Dutton

    We don’t have a rule of thumb for pale pink: that seems to be a case of waiting to see how the flowers open, as you say. So in areas where we would be happy with pale pink flowers we leave all the pink-veined plants and weed out the undesirables at flowering time. But I’m pretty sure that all our white ones have not a trace of pink in the leaf veins.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Lupins are a hot topic in Central Otago – seen as beautiful wild flower to the casual viewer and as invasive pest plant by environmentalists and farmers alike. But they don’t grow in our conditions here whereas foxgloves are a common weed in the countryside.

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