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Foxglove – Digitalis Mertonensis

About 30 years ago I grew my first foxglove. Although they’re not native to this country, I always thought of them as a classic plant in gardens of yesteryear.

I sowed the seed of digitalis purpurea and waited.  This variety is a biennial so it produced only foliage its first year.  The beautiful stalks of flowers came the second year.  It was without a doubt one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen in my gardens.

When the flowers faded and the seed started to form, the leaves and stems turned brown/black and dried.  They were awful looking — especially in number.

That was enough to turn me off of foxglove and I never grew them again for many years — until I heard of the Digitalis Mertonensis.  (Sometimes it’s called Strawberry Foxglove.)

Digitalis Mertonensis in my front border.

Digitalis Mertonensis in my front border.  It starts blooming at the end of April and blooms through May — sometimes into June.

Mertonensis is a perennial created by crossing  Digitalis purpurea  (the common biennial foxglove I first grew) with Digitalis grandifora (a yellow true perennial foxglove).

Although it’s a perennial — it’s a short lived perennial in many gardens — including my own.  But the beauty of the bloom AND its great looking foliage make it well worth growing even if it only lives 3 or 4 years.

It likes soil rich in organic matter and enjoys some shade.  In my border it gets morning shade and heavy afternoon sun, but still does well.

Seed or Plant?

Since I’ve sold perennials for many years and use to buy plants by the flat from a reputable wholesaler at a reasonable cost, I never even considered growing this superb foxglove from seed.

Prices for individual plants over the past 6 years have skyrocketed. In addition, the wholesaler I bought from is no longer selling wholesale. The price for one Mertonensis foxglove is $9.95 and you need at least 3 plants to get a look that is complimentary to the border.

Supposedly you can divide the rootball to propagate, but I always felt it ruined the beautiful growth of a mature plant. And the small divisions that I removed never grew to be the size plant I wanted.

Like most of us — I want to get as much as I can with the garden budget I have. So I started looking around the internet to see what success folks have had growing Mertonensis from seed and found almost all favorable comments. It breeds true from seed and is said to be easy to grow.

Growing from Seed

I’ve ordered some seed and plan  to start it via the wintersown method as soon as it comes. Seed is sown on the surface since it needs light to germinate.  They need constant moisture — which the wintersown method will take care of without much attention from me.  The germination temperature is around 65 to 75 degrees and takes 2 to 4 weeks.

Backup plan

If for some reason that doesn’t go according to plan, I’ll start some in flats by mid-March. I’ll let them germinate inside if necessary. Setting them under my hoop tunnels after germination will protect them from any frost.  That will give me an early start so they’ll be ready to place in the borders by warmer weather.

I think they’d do well direct sown to the spot they’ll grow if the gardener is prepared to make sure they stay moist.

Most likely the new seedlings will just grow foliage this year and start blooming next year.

Trying for a Second Bloom

After the first stalks flower, I cut back the stems to their base.  Sometimes I get another smaller stalk of bloom; sometimes I don’t.

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After the first stalks finish flowering, cut back to their base to try for a second stalk of bloom.

Final Thought
If you want an ornamental that adds a vertical dimension and will really get attention, try this great perennial foxglove, Digitalis Mertonensis.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Although Digitalis is a popular ornamental for flower gardens and flower borders, all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested including the seed and pollen.
 
Also, you should avoid inhaling the pollen.Wearing gloves when handling it is a good idea especially if you have any cuts on your hands. I don’t know that animals would eat it — but if you’re concerned — don’t plant it. And of course — if you have small children you may want to pass on growing it until they are old enough to know to steer clear of it.
 
The leaves of digitalis are often mistaken for comfrey. This can be a fatal mistake so caution is required if you’re growing both.

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Suggested reading for wintersown:

You Can Plant in December

Looking at Winter Sown Seedling and the Garden

Warm Weather Crops and the Winter Sown Method

Seed Starting – Another Variation of Winter Sown

Winter Sown – Another Plus

Seed Starting – It’s Easy Even with Less than Perfect Conditions

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All content including photos is copyright by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved.

4 comments to Foxglove – Digitalis Mertonensis

  • Sandra

    I can grow this plant, but I’ve never had it naturalize in my garden. I do love it though.

  • Theresa

    If you’re like me Sandra, I have so much mulch on my garden and borders — its hard for anything to reseed it self.

  • Grace

    Good Morning, Theresa, and thanks for bringing up the subject of Foxglove…as is often the case, it’s timely news/info for me, because I’ve recently bought seed (a mix that just lists ‘digitalis’ as the type) and I’ve been thinking of when and where to plant it. The seed packet says it’s best to plant between April and August, so I thought I might wait until mid to late August to sow the seeds in some of my shadier flower beds.

    I have a couple of questions, though:

    1. Would it help when sowing the seeds to place a thin layer of straw on top of them? I’ll make sure it’s thin enough they get light, as well as enough water, but thought it would help with water conservation.

    2. If I sow in mid to late August, based on what the packet says, then I should get foliage this growing season and both foliage and flowers the 2nd…right? At least, as I understand it.

    Also, thanks for the heads up on the foliage looking a lot like Comfrey! I’m just now watching my first Comfrey plant bloom from a root division shared with me last fall by a fellow gardener…and this plant is beautiful! The ‘gardener of origin’ ;):D…said she wasn’t sure the root would be any good, because it had taken so long to get it out to me, but she thought it would be alright. It smelled to high heaven of plant decomposition when I opened the package and I planted it in a specially chosen location with some reservations and doubts, and waited all winter hoping something would happen in the spring.

    I was not to be disappointed however, because quite early in the spring I saw the first tiny tip of green start breaking through the soil. Soon, the single stalk began to grow at a fairly rapid pace; it now stands almost 4 ft tall and the bell-shaped blooms are a really lovely lavender color.

    It being the first time I have ever grown Comfrey, I’m watching the plant through all stages of its development and plan to save the seeds for future plantings elsewhere on the property. I will also be drying and saving the leaves of the plant, which are good for fighting infection, as I found out a few years ago when I was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider. I had developed a serious secondary infection and the poison was not only entering my bloodstream, it was also trying to travel toward my spine via a second channel of infection.

    I saw an ER physician when I began to suffer dizzy spells and fevers, and he did what he could do to deal with the wound, but informed me it would require dressings to help pull out the remaining infection. A friend heard me say this and told me about a poultice made of crushed, dried Comfrey leaf that had helped her husband a great deal in healing a deep cut that had become badly infected and just plain didn’t want to heal. Frankly, I was willing to try anything, because it was a terrible wound and extremely deep.

    Anyway, this same friend went to her local herbalist and obtained about 10 fresh leaves, indicating I could use the leaf fresh immediately, but it would be best to let them air dry, then crush as much as needed for the size of the wound just before using, and soak in a small amount of warm water. Apply the mostly drained material directly to the wound (if feasible) or on top of a single layer of wet gauze, cover with more gauze and a tiny bit of the soaking water), tape shut but leave a bit of room for some air flow, and let remain overnight or for no longer than 6-8 hours between changes.

    I used 7 of the 10 leaves over a three day period and was amazed at how well the Comfrey pulled the infection out of the wound. Initially damp when applied, as time progresses, the wad of material begins to dry out and act as a sponge, soaking up the inevitable drainage a bad wound will have. I could go on and on about the amazing properties of Comfrey, because its use really was key in helping me overcome a serious illness, and I cannot sing its praises enough.

    I would like to point out that when I used Comfrey, I had access to a person who was trained in its use, as well as some previous knowledge gained through reading about its use. As with any substance used on or in the human body, it is always advisable to do some research and pay close attention to the details. Such as being glad Theresa pointed out I should probably not stick my nose to Foxglove flowers and take a good whiff – though it stands to reason the pollen would contain the same ‘active ingredients’ as the rest of the plant, I probably wouldn’t have thought of it…and taken a good whiff…:D.

    Hope this reply isn’t too long, Theresa! And thank you so much for letting me be a part of such a great community of gardeners.

    ~Grace

  • Theresa

    Hi Grace,
    Your comment was SO informative.
    I’ve always heard great things about Comfrey and have wished for it several times over the years.
    I will wish no more — and will take action and have it in my garden next year for sure!
    I could have used it last year when Bill had a problem similar to yours.
    Thank you for taking the time to give so much detail. I really enjoyed it.

    In answer to your questions:
    Yes, I would put a very thin layer of straw on top to help hold the seeds in place. Just enough to hold them, but to allow light and water through.

    If the seeds germinate this fall — you’ll get foliage and I too would assume that you would get bloom and foliage next year.

    By the way the mertonenesis digitalis is far superior (I think anyway) to the regular foxglove. So do try it if you can get it. Regular foxglove turns really ugly after it blooms.

    Let me know how you do.
    Theresa

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