PLANT OF THE WEEK #49: Digitalis ferruginea

‘What are the black uprights?’

This question from a Facebook follower prompted the thought that while it’s well past the floral peak of Digitalis ferruginea, its contribution to the garden right now is as powerful as ever.

I clearly remember the first time I saw pics of this plant, in one of those stunning, backlit, early morning scenes of (I think) a Dan Pearson garden, in which it glowed alongside some fuzzy grasses, the light being further caught and scattered by a nearby sprinkler (though my imagination may well have added the last detail in the intervening years).

Then when I was designing the planting of the garden at Stone Hill, I found that a taller-than-the-type form named ‘Gelber Herold’ was available, and I grabbed about eight to add to the mix.  (Bear in mind that when you’re planting such a garden as this in Australia, you can never make a list of the plants you want to include and then go hunting for them.  You start with what is available, and make that range work.  It’s a process of 90% compromise and 10% opportunism).

The planting was designed to require minimal water, and I had no idea how well Digitalis ferruginea would do.  All the literature said that they could cope with less water than other species, with Lambley suggesting that this form had been collected off the coast of Croatia, but I had no first-hand experience of either their sun or drought tolerance.

Its performance review?  10/10 on all fronts. It’s magical in bud, stunning in flower, and powerful in seed.  The large number of small flower buds descend in size up the stem with mathematical precision, with the open flowers at the bottom extending further in perfect proportion so that a single spike, with about a fifth of the flowers open, forms a slender cone of precise taper. It self-sows, but only just enough to provide a steady increase in numbers, without any sense of getting out of hand.  It even manages to sow into hard-packed gravel, which might be alarming for some, but is welcome (in the moderate way it’s going) here.  The plants appear to be short-lived perennials in this climate, capable of two or three years of flowering before the old rosette dies away.  Foliage is a thick, resilient-looking, and a very satisfying deep green.

The fine, thread-like vertical line is Digitalis ferruginea’s single-biggest contribution to a planting, turning from green early on, to the lovely terracotta-rust of the flowers, and then to a near-black in seed.

There’s simply never a moment when it isn’t making a contribution.

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