PLANT OF THE WEEK #103: Digitalis canariensis

I have a thing for caramelly/biscuity coloured flowers. I can’t help but think that it’s linked to a sweet tooth.  As I scan quickly back through memory files, every one of the plants that springs to mind within this category once filled me with a disproportionate sense of longing.

I immediately think of some Pacific Coast iris that I yearned for, about thirty years ago. The moment the thought comes to mind, there’s a corresponding ache of longing that rises with it.  The same goes for that mimulus – Mimulus aurantiacus, I believe – that was for many years grown in the old copper in the centre of the cottage garden at Sissinghurst.  I recall moments of infatuation for slighted toasted apricot forms of verbascum (curiously never consummated by ownership), for roses like ‘Crepuscule’ and ‘Buff Beauty’, and for a year or two I had a thing for Achillea ‘Terracotta’.

But that all leads me to the pinnacle of this passion – Digitalis canariensis.

It’s an odd plant.  As a digitalis – and therefore as a foxglove relative –  it doesn’t fit the mould at all.  It’s shrubby, and sends all the visual signals of a plant that is adapted to a pretty tough climate, while the normal foxgloves look like plants from damp shade.  Admittedly, now I’ve written that, it occurs to me that many of the foxglove relatives are from tough, dry climates, and that if anything, the classic Digitalis purpurea might be the odd one out on that score.  But I’ll try and stay on track.

It’s not a beautiful shrub, as such.  The leaves are nice enough, and their spiral arrangement has a kind of curious appeal. The trouble is the plant never holds on to old leaves, and a full-size specimen of Digitalis canariensis will always be hollow, revealing all its underlying bone-structure.

Not an easy plant to integrate into other planting, Digitalis canariensis here sits alongside its near-perfect partner, Stipa gigantea

But all that is forgiven when, in late spring or early summer, each one of these bare-legged, ruff-topped stems shoots forth a perfectly tapering terminal spike of flowers of the most delectable caramelised apricot.  It’s hard to imagine anything more totally captivating.

No matter in what situation you encounter Digitalis canariensis, it will stop you in your tracks.  That’s partly due to the colour, which is nearly impossible to integrate into a mixed planting, so always presents as arrestingly novel.  But it’s also that perfect combination of flower posture, shape and colour.

Digitalis canariensis was until recently known as Isoplexis canariensis, and most planty-people I know still stick with that name, possibly out of a touch of snobbery, and possibly out of subconscious recognition of the fact that any plant, animal or person blessed with an ‘x’ in their name would rightly be reluctant to give it up.

Digitalis canariensis at Hidcote, in the UK, in late May – clearly not long out of glasshouse protection, which it would definitely need there

In gardens D. canariensis grows to about 1.5m high, and the same in width, being happy in full sun to part shade.  It is relatively drought tolerant, but will certainly benefit from a bit of summer watering.  What it can’t stand is frost.  There are gardens near me that grow it well under the lightest canopy of eucalypts – so light you can’t imagine how they could provide any protection – but I, with no such canopy, don’t stand a chance.

But given my great love for the thing, it curious to me that I’ve never owned one.  The frost, of course, would make it impossible for me to keep it going, so it almost feels irresponsible to attempt to grow it.  To do so would feel like I’m somehow dishonouring it. Same goes for the mimulus above.  Add to that that as a full-time gardener and father of three I never considered plant acquisition – other than by my own propagation – as a feasible financial option, and that headspace endures.  But there’s more still.  Throwing caution of over-sharing to the wind, I can’t help but wonder if one of the single greatest challenges to my home-garden achievement is my mastery of self-denial.  Incurable acquisitors and impulse-purchasers have much more engaging gardens!

That said, one day I’ll work out how to keep it happy over winter – a glasshouse may have to be factored in – and me and at least three – quite possibly five – Digitalis canariensis will joyously cohabit this space.

Discussion

  1. The glory of the web is that when we’re presented with a previously unknown plant we can look it up and see if it could make a contribution for us. And whether it’s available for sale.
    Much easier than falling for a plant and then wandering around looking for somewhere to squeeze it in. Which I imagine we’ve all been guilty of…..

  2. I have just planted two of these..Purchased at our little town market for $4 each. Now I see that I should have got a 3rd and planted a clump. Clumping is a skill I have not yet learned but I will when the best doers multiply and the weaker specimens cease to be. Always something to learn.

  3. We planted this a few years ago and it has survived the frosts although surrounded by other shrubs and perennials with Apricot tree behind it And I think the weeds help protect it..

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