Versatile foxgloves come in many guises and can add lightness, romance or architecture, depending on your scheme. Here are a few, chosen by Matthew Biggs and grown by Digitalis collection holder Terry Baker at The Botanic Nursery.
Foxgloves are popular in a host of planting styles from traditional cottage gardens to the contemporary perennial plantings of Piet Oudolf and the New Perennial movement.
There are 25 species and forms in the genus Digitalis, found throughout Europe, northwest Africa and central Asia in a range of habitats from woodland clearings to sub-alpine meadows. The only true biennial is Digitalis purpurea and its cultivars, although some modern purpurea hybrids are classed as short-lived perennials. Most foxgloves, including ancient species and modern hybrids, are perennials, whose lifespan varies according to the growing conditions but is usually three to five years.
Perennial species are divided into two groups: herbaceous perennials, such as D. grandiflora and D. lutea, which die down during cold winters and those retaining an evergreen rosette, including D. parviflora and D. ferruginea. The species flower from early to midsummer but the new hybrids are sterile, so flower for a longer period – from spring to autumn and beyond during mild winters – because they do not set seed. They also tend to swap elegance for robustness, producing denser spikes of more upright flowers.
People are familiar with the foxglove, so are not overawed by the variety, meaning nurseries can offer many of the more unusual ones and people are prepared to give them a try
The natural elegance of all the cultivated species can be used to add lightness, romance or architecture, depending on the scheme. Smaller species, such as D. lutea and long-flowering modern hybrids, including D. purpurea ‘Dalmation Peach’ with its subtle, pale-apricot flowers, are ideal for growing in pots in courtyard gardens.
The best foxgloves to grow for colour and structure
Digitalis purpurea ‘Candy Mountain’
The first foxglove with an upward-facing flower. Deep-pink buds open to reveal freckled throats of densely packed, deep-rose-pink blooms on upright stems. Ideal for planting in drifts.
Height 1.4m. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
A small foxglove, ideal for containers or the front of a border, with slender spikes of primrose-yellow flowers. Hardy and thrives in sun or shade. Comes true from seed, so good for naturalising.
Height 60cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.
D. purpurea subsp. heywoodii
A tiny, branching perennial, covered in white hairs, of delicate beauty with silvery-grey foliage, creamy-yellow buds and white flowers. A must for a sunny rock garden or in poor free-draining soil.
Height 45cm. Hardiness USDA 3a-8b.
A recent introduction producing multiple elegant spikes of soft-pink flowers, it is ideal in containers or borders. Cut back fading flower stems to prolong the flowering season.
Height 1m. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Dalmatian Purple’
An elegant, short-lived and well branched perennial, that flowers in its first year, with dense, sturdy spikes of evenly spaced, outward-facing flowers. These are lavender purple with maroon interior spotting and evenly spaced around an upright stem. Self-seeds freely.
Height 90cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-9b.
D. ‘Polkadot Polly’
Another robust plant from the Polkadot series, producing masses of hanging, pale-pink flowers on willowy stems. A sterile hybrid, it has a long flowering season from early summer onwards.
Height 90cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’
Apricot and deep-pink buds gradually open to soft apricot-pink flowers. Flourishes in sun or part shade and self-seeds freely in undisturbed soil. Excellent cut flower.
Height 1.2m. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’
Eye-catching and dramatic with sturdy spires of large, white flowers with a rich maroon throat. Bred from seed of a foxglove found on a compost heap at Wayside Gardens in South Carolina.
Height 1.5m. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea Foxy Group
This compact group, produces a mix of pink and white blooms with bold, purple speckled throats, all around the stem. Blooms in the first year from a late-winter sowing. 90cm.
Height RHS H7. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. ‘Polkadot Pippa’
A robust plant producing intense rose-coloured flowers, with a golden throat and pointed lip. Flowers from late spring to first frosts. Flourishes in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade.
Height 80cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Snowy Mountain’
A plant of considerable presence and poise. Its dense spikes of upward-pointing, pure-white flowers – their throats lightly speckled with burgundy – emerge from creamy-yellow buds and are held upright all round the stem.
Height 80cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Purple Carousel’
Densely packed spikes of deep purple-pink flowers with attractive, raspberry-pink blotching in the throat. Produces blooms all-round the stem, making it ideal for containers.
Height 80cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
Compact,with deep-green leaves and slender spikes of bronze-brown flowers. If mainstem is cut back after flowering, further smaller flower spikes will grow. Thrives in sun or part shade.
Height 90cm. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.
D. purpurea Glittering Prizes Group
An elegant, majestic plant with dense spikes of large flowers in shades of purple to lilac, rose and white, with attractively mottled throats. Ideal for the back of a border or as a cut flower.
Height 1.8m. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea ‘Dalmatian Peach’
This elegant, understated short-lived perennial plant produces small bells of subtle pink around the stems. Ideal in a pot or as a companion to pale-blue campanulas.
Height 60cm. Hardiness USDA 4a-8b.
This clump-forming perennial boasts large, pretty, primrose-yellow flowers with pointed petals. Its soft tones combine well with almost any other colour. Herbaceous so dies back in winter.
Height 60cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.
Perennial sub-shrub with leathery, deep-green leaves. The orange-to-brown, funnel-shaped flowers are marked in the throat with netted veins and spots. Needs full sun and excellent drainage.
Height 40cm. Hardiness RHS H3, USDA 4a-8b.
D. purpurea f. albiflora
Gertrude Jekyll used this form extensively in her white planting schemes. The pure-white flowers, with light freckling in the throat, are ideal for illuminating dark corners.
Height 1.5m. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
Striking, honey-coloured flowers, which are attractive to bees, are densely packed around the stiff spires of this elegant perennial. An architectural plant in both summer and winter.
Height 1.8m. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.
Small, pale-tan flowers, marked with violet-brown veins, and held on broad spikes, spring from a rosette of dark-green leaves and have a protruding curved, white lip. Covered in tiny hairs.
Height 1m. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 3a-9b.
Where to see and buy
The Botanic Nursery
Stonar School Walled Garden,
Coombe Lane, Atworth, Melksham,
Wiltshire SN12 8NU.
Tel 07850 328756,
thebotanicnursery.co.uk Open March to October, offers the widest range of foxgloves in the British Isles and holds the National Collection, which you can view during its Foxglove Week, 1-4 June 2017.