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Gardening : Foxglove: A Real Stand-Up Flower

May 18, 1996|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Lew Whitney of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar wants to liven up a garden, foxgloves are among his top choices.

"Foxgloves bloom in semi-shady locations [and] are a great backdrop for a woodland look," he said. "The flowers are spectacular and reliable."

Whitney oversees design of the gardens at Casa Pacifica, Richard Nixon's Western White House in San Clemente.

The formal garden near the main entrance features geometric planting beds linked by pebble walkways that were installed in the 1920s when the house was built. Each diamond-shaped bed is 12 feet by 12 feet, and the planting area is dramatized by just one plant variety per bed.

Foxgloves occupy places of honor in three prominent beds.

Foxgloves have been used for centuries to add vertical spires of color to cottage gardens and perennial beds.

Its botanical name is Digitalis, and the valued medicinal drug of the same name is derived from the leaves of Digitalis purpurea, known as common foxglove. The plant is a biennial--it takes one year to grow and flowers the second year.

Hybridizers have created new varieties, and the most reliable for Orange County is foxy, which is also a more restrained grower, sending up flower spikes of just 3 or 4 feet compared with the towering 6-foot spikes of Shirley.

"In my opinion, it's the best all-round foxglove," Whitney said.

Each fall, 58 young foxy plants are transplanted from their 4-inch containers into each of three planting beds at Casa Pacifica that are defined by small hedges of boxwood. The soil has been prepared with organic amendments since foxgloves thrive in rich, well-draining soil.

Whitney recommends fertilizing with a balanced food once a month during the fall.

Bamboo stakes are also inserted next to each small plant when they're placed in the beds. As the primary flower spikes emerge, they're secured to the stakes with garden ties.

Flowering begins in March and continues through June. After primary spikes have finished blooming, they're removed to encourage each plant to produce smaller, secondary flower stalks.

Whitney advises heavy fertilizing of these plants from March through May, and those at Casa Pacifica receive water-soluble fertilizer applied to the soil around the base of each plant every two weeks to encourage abundant secondary shoots.

After blooming, the plants are replaced with summer color. Some garden enthusiasts like to nurture their plants for another year of flower production.

"Although we treat foxy as an annual, it can bloom a second year if the plant is hardy and robust," Whitney said.

If you've fallen in love with foxgloves and are determined to add them to your landscape, you can still find some in bloom at local nurseries. These will be in 1-gallon containers and won't perform as well as those 4-inch plants that are best installed in fall.

You may also find the small sizes now and can still plant them, but don't expect blooms until the following spring.

If you want to plant 1-gallon size, be sure to select healthy, vigorous plants with no signs of yellow leaves. If the plant hasn't produced all its secondary shoots, you can enjoy flowers for another month. Or, if you prefer, wait until fall for best selection of vigorous plants.

Foxy is available in white, pink, magenta, lavender and purple. If you buy the plants when they aren't in bloom, you can't be guaranteed of the specific color since commercial growers aren't yet growing by color. But even with a mixed assortment, the white or pastel hues blend with most landscapes.

The pendulous flowers are distinguished by patterns of dots and spots.

Botanists say that while the patterns are visually appealing, their function is to guide insects deep into the flowers where pollen is. These visiting pollinators include bumblebees and honeybees, so beware of grabbing a flower and disturbing a defensive winged visitor.

Foxgloves are also useful in gardens meant to attract birds, for they're liked by hummingbirds which hover next to the raceme, sipping nectar from each tubular flower.

In addition to foxy, there are a several other varieties useful in Orange County gardens. Shirley grows to 6 feet and also produces yellow spikes in addition to light and pastel colors. D. mertonensis is a true perennial and has denser, more compact foliage and coppery pink flowers.

Foxgloves thrive in semi-shade or full sun, although in full sun the foliage can go limp. A little shade can be provided by a tree canopy.

They're not troubled by insects with the exception of snails and slugs, which munch on the leaves. Control these by handpicking or set out saucers filled with beer. The yeasty brew attracts them, and they'll drown as they drink their fill.

All parts of foxgloves are poisonous, so plant them where infants and other young children can't be tempted to sample leaves or flowers.

Foxgloves are dramatic in mass plantings but are also useful in perennial plantings with delphiniums, irises and roses. They can self-seed if they like their location, although often the seedlings produce white or light-colored flowers.

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