Foxgloves add a free and easy cottage-garden touch with their tall spires and dangling tube-like flowers. They come in white, yellows, mauves, maroons and purples, many with beautiful speckles in the throat.
Foxgloves quickly form colourful clumps to liven up areas of light shade and attract masses of bees. The common name has nothing to do with foxes, but is a corruption of the phrase 'folks' gloves' - fairy folk were said to use flowers as gloves. The Latin, digitalis, refers to the flowers' finger- or digit-like shape.
Besides buying or sowing the seed of a particular kind of foxglove, also buy a packet of mixed seed giving all kinds of different colours. But note that most foxgloves are biennials, which means that you sow seed one year; they flower, die and scatter seed the next. Also note that all parts are highly toxic if eaten, but handling them isn't a problem.
Digitalis purpurea: the only British native is also the biggest and best, capable of reaching 1.8m (6ft) high. It has soft, felt-like leaves and a strong stem that can carry hundreds of tubular flowers. The buds are white, but the flowers are rich, rosy purple with lovely speckles and clusters of short hairs in the throat. A biennial or short-lived perennial, it's best grown annually.
D. purpurea Excelsior Group: there's a wide range of pastel-coloured flowers that grow all around the stem rather than up one side only. Foxy Group is much more compact and seldom exceeds 75cm (2.5ft) high. D. purpurea subsp. heywoodii is a wild subspecies with silvery leaves and ivory flowers. And D. purpurea Giant Spotted Group is much more eye-catching because of the large blotches of dark purple in the flowers' throats. All are best grown annually.
D. grandiflora: closely resembling D. purpurea, it has deep cream-coloured flowers whose throats are streaked with distinctive rusty markings. Biennial or perennial. Has been given the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
D. laevigata: in midsummer it produces spires of brownish-yellow flowers with a white lower lip and speckled interior. Perennial.
D. lutea: a choice foxglove with slender stems of pale yellow flowers from early to mid-summer. Perennial.
D. x mertonensis: one of the most popular forms, its dusky pink flowers are large but the stems are slightly shorter than those of D. purpurea. Although a hybrid, it produces fertile seed that replicates the parent. Perennial. Has been given the Royal Horticultural Society' Award of Garden Merit.
D. parviflora: has early summer, dark orange-brown flowers which are densely packed along the flower spikes. Perennial.
Site and soil preferences: Virtually any soil is fine, ideally being quite rich, but avoid wet and dry extremes, and grow in light shade.
Sowing: The optimum time for sowing seed is as it matures on the plant in mid to late summer, before the end of August. A single seed capsule will provide hundreds of seeds, a few of which can be sown in ordinary seed compost in containers and placed somewhere cool and moist. The seedlings will produce large, early flowering plants for next summer. If you're relying on nature to do the work for you in borders, thin out the seedlings on the ground to enable them to reach a decent size. In a wild garden, don't intervene; higgledy-piggledy is fine.