Digitalis purpurea

The best of all foxgloves is the wild species of British woods and banks – it is almost impertinent to try to ‘improve’ a plant of such elegance and charm. A hardy biennial, with rosettes of leaves at the base, the flower is too well-known to need lengthy description. It is 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) tall, with drooping tubes of flowers up one side of the stalk in mid-summer. The flowers are in shades of purple, white, or sometimes a pure and lovely pink, richly spotted inside.

The foxglove is very much a cottage plant, brought in from the wild over many centuries for herbal use, and is one of the few plants still used in modern medicine, a treatment for heart disease. The cottage paintings of Helen Allmgham, a friend of Ruskin, Tennyson and Browning, which now fetch high prices in the saleroom, nearly always have foxgloves waving among the roses and pansies by the cottage door.

There is room for foxgloves in almost every garden which boasts a tree or a few shrubs, for it likes a little shade; it prefers light soil, with some humus. Being biennial, seed should be sown in two successive years to get continuity of flower, after which it will seed itself for ever. The hybrid ‘Excelsior’ strain, which I deplore, has horizontal flowers clumsily crowded all round the stalk, but there is a pleasant perennial foxglove, D. grandi-flora. With yellow flowers.

Foxgloves look best scattered among plants as unpretentious as themselves, and the tall, pink-flowered rose species, Rosa glauca. With leaves of soft blue-green on red stalks, makes a perfect background. Sow the seeds outdoors in early summer, preferably in situ, for flowering the following year, Foxgloves require no staking, no feeding, no dosing for disease, and the leaves provide winter ground-cover. What more can any plant be asked to give?

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