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GARDENING; Don't be foxed by familiar flowers.

Imagine if the common foxglove could only be found growing in rocky ravines in a remote part of Kashmir.

We'd be clamouring to get our hands on it, happy to pay six or seven pounds a plant.

Plant hunters would be risking life and limb to collect the seed, and named forms would be launched at the Chelsea Flower Show in a blaze of publicity.

Crazy? Well, take a fresh look at this familiar plant. If you'd never seen it before, it would take your breath away.

Those narrow spires of dusty pink, each bell delicately spotted in cream and brown, are absolutely stunning.

And it easily reaches 7ft tall when conditions suit it, making a well- grown specimen as showy as any treasured Himalayan introduction.

Most people tolerate a few foxgloves in the garden if they crop up naturally, but I also meet folk who actively dislike this plant.

If you're one of them, or if you look upon foxgloves as plants that should know their place, and that's firmly OUTSIDE your garden, then take a fresh look.

THE foxglove family, Digitalis, has some unusual and unexpected members.

And although they all have a strong family resemblance, I'll bet that the beauty of some of them would stop you in your tracks.

For a start, what about a creamy yellow foxglove or a coppery brown one? Digitalis grandiflora comes from Central Europe where it grows in woodland clearings or by streams.

It's smaller than our native foxglove, only a couple of feet tall, and has colourful large open bells of soft buff- yellow with the most beautiful tan and bronze freckles.

It scores over our own foxglove, which is a biennial and dies after flowering, by forming good leafy clumps which go on from year to year.

Digitalis lutea is another good perennial with graceful slender spires and creamy- yellow flowers. Both look fantastic among dark red roses, or in herbaceous borders.

A brown foxglove doesn't sound particularly appealing, does it? But Digitalis parviflora has earthy orange- brown flowers, and I just love it.

I think the whole plant is attractive, from the neat mounds of greyish strap- like leaves to the narrow milk-chocolate flower spikes. Some folk find the tightly- packed flowers almost orchid-like, and when it's in flower here, everyone asks what it is.

This plant is supposed to be a short-lived perennial, but my original plants are nearly a decade old and still look wonderful, mingling with blue agapanthus.

Most people fear that if their garden is particularly cold that their plant will die. This is not necessarily so.

My plant has seeded itself, dropping a few offspring onto a gravel path, where it looks brilliant.

My guess is that if a freezing winter spelled disaster for your flowering plants, there'd always be a few well-placed seedlings to carry on the succession.

And that brings me to the the greatest talents of the whole foxglove family - the uncanny knack of popping up just where they look best and where you'd never think to put them.

No member of the family is better at this than our own Digitalis purpurea. If you hate the mauvy-pink form, try allowing the white form to seed itself among shrubs or in a dark corner.

Nothing lights up a drab area like these great milk-white spires, and you can keep the strain pure by pulling out any seedling with a purplish tinge to the stem.

They'll be the common purple ones.

Alternatively, get hold of seed or plants of `Suttons Apricot'. This is a lovely soft peach, and looks wonderful pushing up through other herbaceous plants, or among roses. It flowers nearly all summer and looks fabulous.

The Giant Spotted strain runs from white, through creamy yellow and pink, to rose and purple.

Each bell is heavily feckled and spotted, and, since the spikes are tall, you can enjoy the flowers at eye level.

If you feel that these selected forms of Digitalis purpurea are too big for your garden, remember that, although they are giants in height, they are narrow at the base, and happily squeeze between other plants.

YOU could also plump for one of the shorter perennial varieties mentioned above.

Foxgloves don't seem particularly fussy about soil or situation.

The European varieties prefer good drainage, although my plants are in quite a damp border.

Digitalis purpurea, being native seems to thrive anywhere, even in that most difficult of situations, dry shade.

Because they're so obliging and so easily raised from seed, it's tempting to look upon them as utility plants.

For me, foxgloves are among the delights of high summer.

They look fabulous at home in the cottage plot or add definition to a patch when placed among choice rhododendrons and menconopsis.

Don't look down on them because they're familiar.

Just enjoy the fact that something so easy to grow and to nurture can provide the garden with so much beauty and individuality.

PLANT OF THE WEEK - Rosa "Alba Maxima"

This stunning plant is also known as Great Double White, or the Jacobite Rose.

It is an ancient and beautiful rose often found in old gardens, particularly in Scotland, where it was especially appreciated for its historical associations.

It makes a vigorous and healthy shrub up to 6ft tall, with fresh grey- green leaves.

The flowers, which come out in early summer, are wonderful frilled rosettes of creamy white, heavily scented.

As it seems untroubled by disease and thrives anywhere, it is a good choice for gardens where other roses fail. It flowers only once, but it is stunning.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Chudziak, Bill; Wheatcroft, Janet
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 13, 1998
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