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White Foxgloves: Digitalis purpurea alba

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One of the common ways wild foxglove sports is to white, with the same deep maroon spots. You can see this sport in any population of foxgloves of pretty good size, in your garden or in the wild. Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1636,  mentions white foxgloves, but I’d be willing to bet that their appearance in gardens goes back even further than that.

Select Seeds says that there are records of white foxgloves in the U.S. as early as 1838. I don’t doubt that there white foxgloves were grown in U.S. gardens well before that, but 1838 was an era when seed vendor-garden writers were springing up all over, so this may well have been one of their early offerings.

While saved Digitalis purpurea alba seeds will sometimes sport back to the purple form, I’ve found these to be much more stable than the apricot-flowered kind. This is another clue as to why white foxglove was offered so early as a distinct type of seed; it doesn’t take as long to select and stabilize.

Breeders have made good use of white foxglove’s sporty character, cultivating variations. ‘Pam’s Choice’ is probably the best-known of these cultivars, and it irritates me that I must send you to another site for its photo, since my first successful closeups were of ants working ‘Pam’s Choice’ interiors. (Of course, what was a successful closeup to me then, and what works for me now, are two different things, so maybe it’s as well that I’ve lost track of those early photos.)

Ants love foxgloves; I’m not sure what the relationship is between the two of them, but they can be sighted in foxglove flowers, crawling up the nectaries, more frequently than you find them  in most other plants. I don’t know whether they are pollinators (along with bees, the official pollinators of foxgloves), or serve some other purpose.

‘Elsie Kelsey’ is a newer white foxglove cultivar, offered by Pine Tree Seeds. It appears to be a variation on the ‘Pam’s Choice’ make-the-dark-blotches bigger theme. And a fine theme it is, too, though I don’t really see significant difference between the two from looking at the ‘Elsie Kelsey’ photo. I’d be interested to hear if someone has grown them both out and noticed any marked differences.

Another kind of white foxglove sport is Digitalis purpurea ‘Snow Thimble’, which has no spots at all. While this three-foot foxglove might be a beautiful sight in the garden, I’m going to give it a pass until I have more garden room: to me, the spots are one of the major charms of a foxglove. ‘Snow Thimble’ is supposed to make a good cutting flower, and I imagine it would be spectacular in the vase. (Sorry, I couldn’t locate a photo.)

Even without any manipulation by breeders, Digitalis purpurea alba is a fine plant. And a powerful one. While white foxglove may have a weaker strain of wild foxglove’s medicinal qualities, those active ingredients are still there, which means this is a plant you don’t want young children or animals to nibble – and you definitely don’t want it in your herb tea collection, unless you really know what you are doing or are ready to die.  Fortunately, the bitter taste of the alkaloids keeps most curious animals of all types from munching on it for long.

Despite its drastic qualities, there’s something innocently appealing about  white foxglove. Its gorgeous stalks, shining out of the shade – and its deer resistance – make Digitalis pupurea alba and its cultivars stars in the garden, especially a woodland garden. White foxgloves and red-purple Digitalis purpurea set each other off nicely when planted together ( and they often cross to make shades that bridge the spectrum between white and purple). And white foxglove is wonderful in the vase, where a single stalk makes a spectacular statement for weeks.

It’s powerful, it’s radiant, it’s magical: it’s well worth inviting white foxglove into any garden.

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{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Karen - An Artists Garden January 14, 2009, 1:54 am

    I agree – I try and grow white foxgloves every year – as I have so many other sorts of foxgloves this does involve buying seeds sometimes – as my self seeders have a high percentage of purple.
    A stand of white foxgloves is a lovely thing to see.
    K

  • Sylvia (England) January 14, 2009, 3:01 am

    Lovely post Pomona, but as you know I love foxgloves. I just wish I had more room to grow them. I have never noticed ants liking them but I will be checking this year, I have plenty of ants in the garden and with a bit of luck plenty of foxgloves this year.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere January 14, 2009, 3:20 pm

    I’m beginning to suspect that it’s tricky to keep any kind of D. purpurea “pure”. But foxgloves are so beautiful that it’s worth trying – and who knows, we might come up with yet another winning variant. I have trouble with finding room for foxgloves, too, and tend to shoehorn them in with other flower-stalk-from-rosette plants such as campanulas (fairly successful) and hollyhocks (kind of worked).

  • Frances January 14, 2009, 4:30 pm

    Hi Pomona, I love all the foxgloves, but will now look amongst this year’s patch for that white and try to select the seed for it. Usually I just let them sow themselves, then move the small plants now for spring blooms. They are easy to germinate indoors too, fortunately. They have their own space at the shady side of the shed where the conditions are to their liking. A building is a nice backdrop for those tall stalks and helps protect them from winds also.
    Frances

  • Pomona Belvedere January 16, 2009, 3:11 pm

    Your shed sounds like a perfect place for foxgloves, aesthetically and practically. Hope your seed selection has good results – I always enjoy seed selection because in many cases you’re not sure how it will turn out until the actual event.

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