"Family spires"

Flowers on spires are a delight.
Sunday, 30 October 2016     

Digitalis purpurea Foxy

I have always loved the many spires of flowers that arise majestically at this time of year. They remind me of my cottage gardening years, when I wanted to have a garden just like those in England. Eventually, I realised the Sydney climate was not ideal for many of the gorgeous perennial plants that grow in English cottage gardens and I embraced subtropical plants instead. However, I still do have a few of the English-y plants in my garden today - the 'good doers' that can cope with Sydney's humidity and mild winters - and some of them have their blooms held on spires.

Some of these come from the family of plants once called Scrophulariaceae but which is now known as Plantaginaceae (although some plants previously grouped with the original family have been dispersed to other families). Many Plantaginaceae plants have tubular flowers that flare open with lobed lips. Annual snapdragons (Antirrhinum) are a classic example of the family, and I loved these as a child when they grew in our garden, though I have never grown them myself. Another well-known member of the family is the foxglove (Digitalis species and cultivars) and this autumn I yearned to have these in my garden again after many years, so I grew some from seedlings of the annual form, Digitalis purpurea 'Foxy'. They are in bloom now, towering over a metre tall, their spires covered in exquisite pink or cream bells, spotted beguilingly within. I am hoping they might self-seed and return next year. I wanted to see how well they grew in light shade, and I am pleased with the results. They mingle delightfully with late-spring flowering shrubs such as Brunfelsia and Mackaya bella (which both do well in a shaded spot), as well as Philadelphus and deciduous Viburnum. I have never had any success with any of the perennial foxgloves, alas.

However, recently, I acquired a most unusual plant marketed as a 'Digiplexis', a cross between Digitalis and Isoplexis (which is another plant in the same Plantaginaceae family, a soft-wooded evergreen shrub native to Madeira and the Canary Islands, with orange-yellow flowers). Digiplexis is said to be a shrubby perennial plant with multiple flower spikes from spring through to early winter, forming a clump and growing to a metre in height. Mine has raspberry-red flowers, and looks very like my annual foxgloves. I will be intrigued to see how this performs in my garden over the coming months. It may prove to prefer a colder climate but I am keen to give it a go!

Linaria purpurea is a perennial from the Plantaginaceae family that does do well in my Sydney garden. The plants last two or three years, and generously self-seed (but not in a bad way, to my way of thinking). The ethereal spires (ht 70-90 cm) of tiny pink, purple or white tubular flowers are everywhere in my garden at the moment and I find I can gaze in wonderment at them for ages. They bloom over a long period. They do best in a dry, sunny position.

Another perennial from the family that does reasonably well in my garden is Rehmannia elata, which has spires of large, deep pink speckled blooms rather like a foxglove. The plant expands to form a clump when it is happy and seems to do best in sun with good soil. The spires can rise 60 to 90 cm in ideal conditions and can appear for many months.

A less likely member of the family is Russelia equisetiformis, a shrub with long, thin stems bearing tiny, red tubular flowers basically all year round. A fairly lax plant, it doesn't hold its spires up tall like other plants in the family, and is at its best when it cascades over a retaining wall. There is a pretty pale yellow version. I have found that Russelia performs quite well in part-shade.

Other members of the family with similar snapdragon-like flowers are climbers rather than clump-forming perennials: Lophospermum erubescens, Maurandya and Rhodochiton. I have grown the first two of these in my time but find they can become a bit rampageous and self-seed too much.

Spired members of the family that I have had no success with include Penstemon (though I know some talented gardeners in Sydney grow these well!), Angelonia (which seems to want a warmer climate than I have), Hebe and Veronicastrum. Anyhow, I am enjoying the spires I have in bloom at the moment!

 Reader Comments

1/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 October 2016

I always try to grow annual snapdragons, and have a plot now. Often, if they are cut back, they grow again next season, and also self-seed. The foxglove, "Foxy" is a good performer. I have had the plants last for two years, but mine have not self-sown. Linaria purpurea, Rehmania elata and especially penstemons, perform well for me. Interested in Digiplexis, which I have seen advertised, but have not tried it. I must try some snapdragons; they are so quaint. I have heard that feeding penstemons heavily helps them grow well here; I also think we need to divide them each year? I never have had luck with them. Deirdre

2/13  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 October 2016

Happy to see that I"m not the only one who can"t grow Penstemons. I"m sure that my mother used to grow the annual ones successfully in Miranda when i was a child. Heavy feeding and frequent division may be the key but I do think climate plays a role. They grow so well in inland gardens in NSW! Deirdre

3/13  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 October 2016

I have always had shadey gardens & now have a new sunny garden so as a lover of English cottage gardens i put in a Delphinium & a Foxglove & both are just doing incredibly well & almost completely in flower now & absolutely delighting me! I also put in a Lupin which is green & thriving but no flowers & a poppy that is flowering its head off. I"m at Bayview on the northern beaches. Sounds a lovely garden, Kerrie! Deirdre

4/13  Carole - 2264 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 October 2016

....self-seeding linarias are one of my big delights here. Their colours are zingy and so delicate. They are gorgeous; one of my favourite plants. Deirdre

5/13  Jan - 2130 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 October 2016

Stunning foxgloves Deirdre. I too have given up on penstemons, except penstemon digitalis (Husker Red I think) bought recently and now in full flower and looking great with its delicate cream and light mauve colouring. Great result with that penstemon, Jan! Deirdre

6/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 02 November 2016

With regard to the penstemons, some of mine I have had growing for years. I grow them them sun, and trim them back when they finish flowering. I haven"t divided the clumps, but do take cuttings regularly. I do feed regularly. Thanks for those tips, Margaret! Maybe I should give them another go. Deirdre

7/13  Lillian - 3951 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 02 November 2016

Hi Deidre Just yesterday I saw and seized Digiplexus, and, like you, I"m very interested to see how it performs. I don"t have much luck with foxgloves as they get easily crowded out. Don"t forget - if you want SPIRES! - and have lots of space, the wonderful and varied, self-crossing and self-seeding Echium are brilliant in Gippsland right now. Yes echium is wonderful! I have just put in a new one. I hope our Digiplexis plants do well! Deirdre

8/13  Priya - 2126 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 October 2019

Just a suggestion: maybe the readers comments in the blog should include a feature where the reader can upload a photo with their comment if they like. For eg, above where they are saying, flowering well or flowering their head off.. it would be nice to see the photos its a great blog; keep it up. Thanks, Priya - a great idea though not sure we can implement it easily! Will investigate. Deirdre

9/13  Pamela - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 October 2019

I loved this blog Deirdre.This is my favourite time in the garden with spires of foxgloves, Delphiniums, Linaria,Salvias and many others mingling with roses, Clematis and irises. Its overwhelming how beautiful the freshness and floral displays are now. ive had great success with the Dowdeswell Delphiniums bred in NZ but no luck with the Digiplexis (lost them after 2 years). I grow a few Penstemon, they seem to do better in drier spots with little completion around them.I need to feed them more! Thanks for the information about the Penstemons. Re the Digiplexis, it does seem as if they only last two years in Sydney but it is possible to take cuttings if you want to keep them going. It is a lovely time of year, I agree! Deirdre

10/13  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 28 October 2019

The "Digiplexis" have been much feature in the Sydney Spring Living Colour displays so it seems they have proved their worth since you planted yours. Jeremy Critchley of The Green Gallery has orchestrated the displays. Thanks, Maureen. As I have noted in the reply above, it seems they only last two years but can be propagated from cuttings. I have not seen the displays you mentioned; sound amazing. Deirdre

11/13  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Some people can grow Penstemon. There is a magnificent display of the annual one outside Tim"s Nursery in Campbelltown. Mine are still quite small and sprawling on the ground. I also have no success with the named perennial ones either.I have two Digiplexis which have survived for at least two years and are about to flower again this year. Thanks for your thoughts. Good that the Digitalis have done so well for you. I am going to take cuttings of mine to try to keep them going! Deirdre

12/13  Katherine - 3265 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Loved your blog Deidre. I live in the western district of Victoria and grow most of the plants you mentioned. This has been an amazing year for echiums - I have various colours of E. candicans, white towers is in bloom and wildpreti is well in bud. Digiplexis do reasonably well here and penstemon thrive and my special joy is a white rehmannia which I acquired last year. Isn"t it a joy to be a gardener in spring! Your garden sounds a delight. Echiums have been good here in Sydney too this year. Have never heard of a white Rehmannia - sounds gorgeous! Deirdre

13/13  Kay - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Dear.Deidre Love your blog looking forward to next Monday When I read about the plants everyone is growing and I think I could grow that plant but when do I plant this plant glad about everyone chatting about penstemons nearly purchased them will plant something else now Cheers kay Thanks for your comment. Penstemon are somewhat tricky in Sydney. They seem to do OK in the Hills District with colder winters and less humid summers. I believe there are some newer varieties that do better and am going to investigate! Deirdre

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