Tag Archives: white foxgloves

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.

Schooling the foxgloves

White foxgloves, though at Tikorangi, not Hidcote

White foxgloves, though at Tikorangi, not Hidcote

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.

Common Digitalis purpurea seen here with Rhododendron Caroline Allbrook

Common Digitalis purpurea seen here with Rhododendron Caroline Allbrook

???????????????????????????????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.

Seedling variation showing a white centre to the common purple

Seedling variation showing a white centre to the common purple