Standing Tall

Blooms: The foxglove lifts spirits as well as eyes, emphasizing the vertical elements of a garden. Many varieties and sizes of the old-fashioned plant are now available.

In The Garden

May 23, 1999|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Beatrix Potter introduced me to foxgloves. Until I saw them in her children's story "The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck," I hadn't known such marvels existed. They looked like purply-pink cathedral spires spangled with bells, a whole thicket of them surrounding the cottage of the "whiskered, bushy-tailed gentleman" of the story -- the fox who was after Jemima's eggs.

"They're an old garden plant and conjure up the old cottage-garden atmosphere," says Englishman John Elsley, horticulturist at Wayside Gardens in South Carolina.

Foxglove (Digitalis) can rise as much as 5 feet from its clutch of green leaves, giving the flower great architectural value. It can be a marvelous focal point, doing the vertical work of a trellis, or it can be a dramatic backdrop for a profusion of flowers in the perennial border.

Early season varieties flower from late spring to July, while late ones finish in August, making it possible to have foxgloves nearly all summer long.

In a kind of something-for-everyone ecumenism, there are annual, biennial and perennial foxglove varieties ranging in size from 18-inch dwarfs to the towering 'Excelsior,' which tops out at 5 or more feet tall with blooms all around the stem rather than on three sides as with most others.

Foxglove colors include white, yellow, rose, pink, brown, apricot and purple. The blossom throat is speckled, or brushed with a second complementary color, adding depth and shading to the overall effect. D. purpurea, the old biennial foxglove of Beatrix Potter's tale, grows wild throughout Britain, self-sowing to produce fabulous swaths of color along highways and in glades.

"It's a wonderful plant for woodlands," says Alan Summers of Carroll Gardens in Westminster. "You can plant them along with maroonish columbines (which also self-sow). Let them all go to seed, and you've got lots of color with very little work."

Foxglove has the added advantage of being unappealing to the voracious deer. (Deer rarely bother hairy-leafed plants.)

Carroll Gardens sells vast quantities of foxglove. Summers reels off a list of favorites:

"Digitalis grandiflora is a wonderful perennial -- cream-yellow flowers with brown speckles," he says. "It will rebloom if you cut off the first spikes. I know some that have been around for 20 years."

Another good perennial is laevigata, which is apricot netted inside with maroon. The individual bells are smaller than the Digitalis purpurea, but there are more of them. And there's Digitalis lanata, which is ivory with browny-purple netting inside.

Another perennial, 'Rusty' foxglove (D. ferruginea), is yellow with a bronzy throat and grows 3 to 4 feet tall.

Annuals include dwarfs, which are about 18 inches tall. Examples are 'Carilon' grandiflora, and 'John Innes' tetra, an English hybrid with grayish foliage and apricot and bronze flowers. And there's 18-inch- tall, yellow-flowered 'Foxy,' a favorite among garden centers.

One recent addition to the pantheon is 'Pam's Choice,' introduced by Ernie and Marietta Obyrne of Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Ore. (It's open to wholesalers only.) Pam Roberts, a friend of the Obyrnes, found one foxglove -- a beautiful cream flower with a Burgundy speckled throat -- on an end-of-season leftover table at a local garden center.

In the collaborative spirit of gardeners everywhere, Roberts wanted to share, so she took it to the Obyrnes. To duplicate the strain, the Obyrnes isolated the plant to keep it from crossing with other foxgloves, and let it go to seed.

"The second year they flowered, and they all came true," says Marietta Obyrne, which means the seed produced an exact duplicate of the parent plant, "so we told Pam about it and she said, Why don't you name it 'Pam's Choice'?"

The distributor, Wayside Gardens, sold out of 'Pam's Choice,' but expects more next year.

Foxglove is the source of the heart medicine digitalis, which is derived from the leaves. They are highly toxic, so if you have pets or young children who forage indiscriminately, foxglove is not for you. But if your kids and critters leave them alone, they are a delight.



1 Garden Lane

Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001


Sold out of 'Pam's Choice' for the season but has

other foxgloves


P.O. Box 310

444 E. Main St.

Westminster, Md. 21185



Wide selection of annual, biennial and perennial



11035 York Road

Cockeysville, Md. 21030




Foxgloves do best in soil rich in compost with good drainage, but otherwise require little attention. The biennials self-seed liberally but only if the tiny seed lands on bare earth rather than a heavily mulched bed. Biennial varieties tend to do well where rhododendrons grow well. The perennials want more sun.

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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