Sunday, 14 November 2010

Entering the Digitalis Age

Why would a man, who recently compiled his top ten species and packed it with bulbs, rhizomes and other things with  stems topped by colourful, almost orchid-like, blooms – lilies, Irises and meconopsis to name but three, also have included a genus that is not only a British wild flower (usually a no-no for this snob) but also quite often brown, well, a sort of mustardy /tan colour.

Digitalis purpurea 
Our native is Digitalis purpurea, which everyone will recognise as the Foxglove from its pinky/purple or sometimes white hanging bells which take up the top half or so of the flower spike, and which tends to grow in hedgerows (if you can find one), at the edge of woodland (if you can find any) and in clearings in said woods. It can reach 1.5m, is beloved of bumble bees and probably evolved those flowers to deposit pollen on the back of the insects so it is transferred from stamen to stamen. Digitalis is Latin for thimble and the whole plant is poisonous, although it is used in the treatment of heart disease (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, YOU WILL DIE!!!)

D. grandiflora
As a teenager I also grew two yellow forms from seed, which became weeds (happy days!) D. lutea and grandiflora, which seemed to like the same conditions as purpurea. Grandiflora is shorter than purpurea but has the same biennial/short-lived perennial life cycle (and where happy will self-sow endlesslessly so just dig 'em up and replant where you want them. It carries its pale yellow flowers down one side of the flower spike (there is a technical term for this but I've forgotten this) but otherwise they are quite similar to purpurea.

D. Lutea
D. Lutea is (obviously) also yellow but has much narrower flowers. It's about the same height as grandiflora, approximately 2-3ft, and also golds its flowers down one side of the stem in a secund (GOT  IT!). Plant one of these in your garden and you need  never buy another. so promiscuous is it, it will appear in paving cracks and carefully prepared planting beds alike, or it did in Angus, and that's not the warmest place in the worldd, or even Scotland. And no, we didn't have a woodland friendly soil, well, not then. Now that the saplings I planted almost  30 years ago in my little red wellies have matured there's a bit more of a wooland feel. But we're not talking about gardens, we're talking about a soil-free roof in London, everything in pots whether they like it or not and some won't but tough luck!

D. Obscura

So what am I actually growing this year? Well, 
I'm currently nursing some seeds of D.obscura through the colder months. I pricked them out a couple of weeks ago  in the hope that that would give them a little boost and while they're sitting up happily enough and have a decent root systems on them I think I might have made the compost a bit too luxurious, as this biennial/perennial where happy comes from the mountains of Spain  so a bit more perlite and/or grit might have been in order. That said, their not exactly dying!
 They come in a range of colours, some with amazing multicoloured flowers, not brilliant colours, but elegant and refined. It's certaintly  an unusual and highly attractive foxglove. Shorter than the classic species, with narrow evergreen foliage; it bears handsome, pendulous flowers in burnt orange and beige with red veins. A second flush of blooms will follow if it is promptly dead-headed.

 Also doing very nicely outside, I'll see if I can find a pic, is D. ferruginea var. gigantea, which my schoolboy Latin would translate as rusty coloured and big. But I could have told you that by looking at it. Makes a spreading perennial a little over a metre high (so not that gigantea)!
This also hails from Mediterranean climes so treat accordingly (ie, don't try to grow in a pot in on an East London rooftop), although at least I get plenty of sun. And wind. And rain. Below is about  one of about 20 young plants  that were sown a couple of months ago and look in fine fettle to get through the winter without any help.  

And I have one more living Digitalis, which I must admit I bought, D. parvilflora.

 It's another odd looking thing with brown lowers rising from the usual rosettes. It's another biennial/perennial if happy so seed collection would be advisable. I should reach a metre and do well in a sunny spot in half-decent soil.

Now, I have seed of another four species which I'm going to wait until March to sow. They are D. lanata, stewartii, nervosa and viridiflora.

Hmmm,  a bit of repetition perhaps but that's what happens when you go through an unillustrated seed catalogue with a pen in bed!

Anyway, happy experiementing! The plantboy 

1 comment:

  1. The unillustrated catalogue being Chiltern Seeds, I presume? They do have some pictures on their website you know! I grew D. obscura from seed in Spring - got 1 survivor out of it, hopefully it will flower next year and 1 ought be enough as they get quite bushy, I believe. Good luck with yours! x