Plant Portraits: Digitalis sceptrum

Digitalis sceptrum, July 2013

Digitalis sceptrum, July 2013

For the most part, the experience of gardening is a succession of small triumphs and minor failures, all of which make us stronger people and better gardeners.  Of course our patience is sometimes tried by storm and pestilence, then just occasionally we get to enjoy a major achievement.

It may not be a big deal to anyone else, but at long last my Digitalis sceptrum (formerly Isoplexis sceptrum) has flowered. It’s been a five year wait and at times I doubted it would happen, but now that it has I am very proud of myself.  The photograph above was taken on July 13th 2013 as the flowers started to emerge from the emerald green foliage.

Two species of Isoplexis were originally identified by Linneaus in 1753 as being part of the genus Digitalis, which also gives us our humble native foxglove Digitalis purpurea.  The two species were Isoplexis sceptrum and Isoplexis canariensis.  Since 1753 Isoplexis has been moved around endlessly in botanical terms, but in 1999 was finally proven to be a true Digitalis.  I think I’ll always prefer Linneaus’ name for sounding like a new type of plastic or rehydrating drink!

Both species grow in woody habitats in Madeira and will grow outdoors in milder parts of the UK, like fellow natives Echium pininana and Geranium maderense.  In the wild, D. canariensis favours  humid woodland whilst D. sceptrum inhabits cloud forest, growing near streams and on steep slopes.  In our seaside garden the latter grows at the front of a raised bed, where the drainage is sharp and it catches the sun for a few hours each day.  My experience is that D. sceptrum tolerates frost and cold very much better than Echium pininana, retaining green, fresh foliage throughout the worst of the winter.  Unlike Echiums,  D. sceptrum can also grow well in a pot, making it accessible to anyone with an unheated greenhouse or conservatory.

Leaves are produced year-round, with older ones turning yellow and dropping in spring.  My first flowers are appearing now, in July, but might perhaps emerge earlier given some decent spring weather.

Digitalis sceptrum, July 2013

The flowers of both species are adapted for bird pollination in their natural habitat, although our sparrows have shown no interest so far in their sweet nectar! The blooms bear more than a passing resemblance to our native foxglove and the fashionable but small-flowered rusty foxglove, Digitalis ferruginea.  The spikes emerge about 10 inches long and are topped by downward facing, rusty orange flowers beautifully netted with chocolate brown. The top of the spike is rather like a pineapple – long acid green leaflets forming an attractive topknot.

I’ve been told that D. sceptrum responds well to pruning after flowering or being cut back by frost, forming several new shoots.  Mine however is producing a neat, rounded bush about 75cm tall without any help.  It might eventually attain about 120cm, by which time it will have outgrown its current space.  In the wilds of Madeira, where this is an increasingly rare plant, D. sceptrum forms an umbrella-shaped small tree about 4 metres high.  The photograph below is credited to Mapa-73, showing a specimen much larger than mine – perhaps in a couple of years’ time I’ll be able to get a similar shot.

Isoplexis sceptrum

If you are a patient gardener with a thirst for the exotic I’d thoroughly recommend giving D. sceptrum a try.  As well as being beautiful, it’s also amazingly pest and disease resistant.  Mine has never entertained so much as an aphid and looks healthy and presentable year-round.   Perhaps in its natural home it suffers, but clearly with bugs that don’t travel well.

I purchased my plant from Hardy Exotics in Cornwall, by mail order following a visit (the car was already too full of plants to squeeze another in!) and I would highly recommend this nursery as a source of all things wild and tropical looking.  Nothing I bought from them has ever failed.

I’d love to hear your experiences of growing this fabulous plant, so please leave a comment below with any comments, hints or tips.

Having A Moment

All gardens have special moments when they look their best. For many it happens in May or early June when new growth is still fresh and green, and before anything has started to flop, yellow or require dead-heading. Our seaside garden is having a moment right now, alive with the bright pink flowers of Geranium palmatum and the rocket-like spires of Echium pininana. Winter is a distant memory at long last. It’s a joy to be in the garden at moments like these … if only the weather would have a moment too!

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Chelsea 2013: The Arthritis Research UK Garden

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As the clock ticked around to 8pm on Wednesday evening, we finally reached the Arthritis Research UK Garden, winner of a gold medal and the People’s Choice award for best garden. After a cold and drizzly day, the sun finally emerged from behind the clouds, accentuating the many contrasts in this inspiring garden. Designed by Chris Beardshaw, the garden featured planting and sculpture reflecting the disease and its impact on the lives of sufferers.

The space was divided into three key areas, each reflecting a different stage in the journey of someone diagnosed with arthritis. The Veiled Garden, an enclosed and shaded woodland area, represented the pain described by those who suffer with the disease and the confusion felt following initial diagnosis. From the Veiled Garden, a stone pathway lead into the Lucid Garden. Here the planting opened up into a more formal space representing understanding and security, as sufferers begin to learn about their condition.

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Finally, in the Radiant Garden, the space between structural hedging was filled with exuberant planting, highlighting a sense of liberation as the person with arthritis learns to manage their condition and enjoy their life again. The planting was vivacious and optimistic, employing a palette of pinks, purples, oranges and blues and featuring striking specimens such as Iris ‘Supreme Sultan’, Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’, Lunaria ‘Corfu Blue’, Tanacetum parthenium, Escholtzia californica, Echium pininana, Geranium palmatum and Anchusa ‘Loddon Royalist’. The rich tapestry of colours and textures gave me lots of ideas for our own garden.

Chris was inspired by his own personal journey with arthritis; from being diagnosed at 19 with a form of rheumatoid arthritis through to managing his condition by keeping active and doing the things he loves. I am sure that through this garden he has inspired a large number of people to follow the same example.

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

The Watch House in the snow

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We’re a bit stuck this weekend. The white stuff came down constantly in central London yesterday, and whilst it made very little difference to life in town, it put me off going down to the coast on our reliably unreliable trains. We’ve also had to cancel birthday party no.2 as the Cotswold hotel we booked is now only reachable by four wheel drive. So unless we wish to take our life into our own hands, it leaves us little option other than to stay put and enjoy the freedom of an empty diary.

It has taken six years for me to stop going into a futile panic over the prospect of frost and snow. I have learnt that if one chooses to grow tender plants, then one has to live with the consequences of cold. I have never been one for wrapping things up in straw and fleece, which is far too unsightly in a small garden and, dare I say, too much like hard work. I’ve also learnt that many of the plants we grow are relatively un-phased by a cold winter, including Echium pininana, Agapanthus africanus and Isoplexis sceptrum. Fair enough, they can take a while to regain their former glory, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of getting them to flower the following year. However Geranium maderense hates the snow so I hope they do better sheltered under an evergreen tree. If not, I’m afraid we may have to say “Adieu” until I am foolhardy enough to try them again.

Everything else, such as the Canna, Eucomis and Hedychium (ginger lilies) are tucked away in a dark but dry cellar where they should be reasonably safe. What’s happened to the Mandevilla that I shoved unceremoniously into the shelter of a wall covered in Trachelospermum (star jasmine) is anyone’s guess. But what will be will be. Nothing I could do now would make a great deal of difference to the outcome, so I may as well get on with reading a book and pouring another G&T.

Above, our coastal garden lightly covered in snow back in 2010. The Geranium maderense didn’t survive. Below, our resident collared doves, Daphne and Dudley, take shelter during 2012′s cold snap. I’m pleased to report they’re both going strong.

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