- Digitalis purpurea
- Growing Foxglove
- Problems and Pests
- Six plants to grow with foxgloves
- Foxglove (Digitalis)
- Attributes: Genus: Digitalis Species: purpurea Family: Plantaginaceae Uses (Ethnobotany): Was used to treat heart conditions, but is highly poisonous if used incorrectly. Life Cycle: Biennial Recommended Propagation Strategy: Seed Country Or Region Of Origin: Europe Wildlife Value: Nectar attracts bumblebees and hummingbirds. Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems): Browsing by deer, contains a chemical that deer avoid. Dimensions: Height: 2 ft. 0 in. – 5 ft. 0 in. Width: 1 ft. 0 in. – 2 ft. 6 in.
- Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Annual Perennial Poisonous Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Clumping Dense Erect Growth Rate: Medium Maintenance: Medium Texture: Coarse
- Fruit: Fruit Type: Capsule Fruit Description: Rounded fruit capsule which splits open at maturity to release the numerous small brown, ridged seeds.
- Flowers: Flower Color: Cream/Tan Pink Purple/Lavender White Flower Inflorescence: Raceme Flower Value To Gardener: Showy Flower Bloom Time: Spring Summer Flower Shape: Funnel Tubular Flower Size: 1-3 inches Flower Description: Blooms grow on tall spikes as a 1-sided raceme with blooms closely grouped together. They are 2-3 inch long tubular flowers and come in multiple colors of white, pinks and purple with purple and white spots inside the petals. An elongate, terminal raceme, 1-2′ long to sparcely branched, bracteate, with flowers subsecund, borne on one side, or borne around the rachis in some hybrids. Flowers are large, nodding, purple to pale pink or white, mauve or yellowish in some hybrids; corolla tube inflated, campanulate, 1.5-2″ long, tube inside ciliate, usually heavily marked with white, edged darker purple maculation, lobes 4, upper lip shorter than lower lip.
- Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Green Leaf Feel: Velvety Leaf Value To Gardener: Showy Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Alternate Rosulate Leaf Shape: Cuneate Lanceolate Ovate Leaf Margin: Crenate Hairs Present: Yes Leaf Length: > 6 inches Leaf Description: The first year it forms a tight rosette of coarse leaves with prominent veins that are up to a foot long and covered with gray-white hairs on the upper surface and are wooly or hairy below. The clump remains low and close to the ground. In the second year, an upright flower stem with smaller leaves is produced from the center of the basal clump. Alternate, simple, ovate to lanceolate, rugose, acute, broad cuneate to subtorund, pubescent; basal leaves long petiolate, petiole and blade reducing upward on cauline leaves.
- Stem: Stem Color: Green Stem Is Aromatic: No Stem Surface: Hairy (pubescent)
- Landscape: Landscape Location: Rock Wall Vertical Spaces Woodland Landscape Theme: Cottage Garden Pollinator Garden Design Feature: Border Mass Planting Small groups Attracts: Bees Butterflies Pollinators Resistance To Challenges: Deer Rabbits Problems: Poisonous to Humans Problem for Children
- Poisonous to Humans: Poison Severity: High Poison Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, severe headache, irregular and slow pulse, tremors, unusual color visions, convulsions Poison Toxic Principle: cardiac glycosides Causes Contact Dermatitis: No Poison Part: Flowers Leaves Roots Stems
By Julie Christensen
If you dream of a romantic, old-fashioned garden, then foxgloves are sure to top your list. These plants produce spikes of bell-shaped flowers atop low mounds of foliage. Foxgloves range in height from 3 to 5 feet and come in purple, pink, cream, yellow and red. They’re often combined with ferns, astilbes and other acid-loving plants. Most varieties are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 9.
Foxglove leaves are highly toxic and should be used with care around children and pets. Interestingly, the toxic compounds, cardiac glycosides, have long been used to stimulate stronger heart palpitations in patients suffering heart failure.
Its name comes from the Old English, “foxes glofa.” A charming old myth says that foxes slipped the tubular flowers over their feet as gloves so they could creep undetected through the night to prey on a farmer’s chickens.
To grow foxglove, sow them from seed in fall or spring, or install nursery plants after the last frost, spacing them up to 2 feet apart. Foxgloves thrive in moist, rich, slightly acidic soil and prefer partial shade. In cold climates, grow foxgloves with more sun. Amend the soil with compost and peat moss before planting.
Most foxglove varieties are biennials. This means if you plant foxglove from seed, they won’t produce flowers until the second year. The plants are usually short-lived, but they self-sow easily. Leave a few flowers to allow seeds to mature and drop. These seeds will produce new plants the following spring.
Keep the soil evenly moist after planting. Apply a two-inch layer of mulch once seedlings appear to conserve moisture and reduce weed growth. Fertilize foxglove in the spring before new growth appears with a balanced fertilizer, according to package directions.
Depending on the size of the plant, foxgloves may require staking, especially if you live in a windy climate. Insert bamboo or plastic stakes into the ground and secure the foxglove stalks to the stakes with soft bits of cotton fabric. Tie the fabric loosely to avoid damaging the plants.
To encourage abundant flowers, remove the central flower after it blooms. This will encourage side blooming. Foxgloves, with their dramatic spikes of blossoms, make wonderful cut flowers. Cut 12- to 18-inch stalks and arrange them with lilies, peonies and other cut flowers.
Dig up and divide foxglove plants every 2 years. This process keeps them tidy and may prolong their growth. Space the plants 12 to 15 inches apart.
Problems and Pests
Most of the problems that afflict foxglove can be managed with proper care. Common diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spot and crown gall. To prevent these problems, space foxglove so air circulates freely between plants. Use drip irrigation, rather than overhead sprinklers to keep leaves dry and avoid working in the garden when it’s wet. Remove diseased leaves promptly and throw them away. Do not compost them.
Snails thrive in the partially shaded, moist conditions preferred by foxglove. You’ll recognize their damage by large jagged holes on the plants’ leaves. Install snail baits and traps or remove them and destroy them by hand.
Japanese beetles gnaw holes through both the leaves and flowers. These pests can quickly destroy your foxgloves. Japanese beetles are an invasive species found throughout the eastern United States. They are 1/2 an inch long with an iridescent green or gold back. To control them, handpick them and squash them or drop them in a bucket of soapy water. They fly slowly and are not difficult to catch. If you prefer, install bug bags. These bags have a pleasant floral scent that attracts the beetles. The beetles fly in the trap but can’t fly out. The one drawback to using the bags is that they attract beetles and not every beetle will go into the trap. Place the bags away from your foxgloves so you don’t create a larger problem.
Aphids appear in the spring. They don’t eat leaves, but damage plants by sucking the sap from the leaves and stems. They also leave a sticky, messy substance called honeydew. To control aphids, spray the undersides of the leaves with a stream of water. You can also apply insecticidal soap or insecticidal oils, which smothers the pests. Avoid using these products during hot, sunny weather and cover leaf surfaces completely.
To learn more, visit the following sites:
Foxglove from the National Gardening Association
Foxglove from Penn State Extension
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which include perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.
The normal life of a Foxglove plant is two seasons, but sometimes the roots, which are formed of numerous, long, thick fibres, persist and throw up flowers for several seasons. In the first year a rosette of leaves, but no stem, is sent up. In the second year, one or more flowering stems are thrown up, which are from 3 to 4 feet high, though even sometimes more, and bear long spikes of drooping flowers, which bloom in the early summer, though the time of flowering differs much, according to the locality. As a rule the flowers are in perfection in July. As the blossoms on the main stem gradually fall away, smaller lateral shoots are often thrown out from its lower parts, which remain in flower after the principal stem has shed its blossoms. These are also promptly developed if by mischance the central stem sustains any serious injury. The radical leaves are often a foot or more long, contracted at the base into a long, winged footstalk, the wings formed by the lower veins running down into it some distance. They have slightly indented margins and sloping lateral veins, which are a very prominent feature. The flowering stems give off a few leaves, that gradually diminish in size from below upwards. All the leaves are covered with small, simple, unbranched hairs. The flowers are bell-shaped and tubular, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long, flattened above, inflated beneath, crimson outside above and paler beneath, the lower lip furnished with long hairs inside and marked with numerous dark crimson spots, each surrounded with a white border. The shade of the flowers varies much, especially under cultivation, sometimes the corollas being found perfectly white. In cultivated plants there frequently occurs a malformation, whereby one or two of the uppermost flowers become united, and form an erect, regular, cup-shaped flower, through the centre of which the upper extremity of the stem is more or less prolonged. The Foxglove is a favourite flower of the honey-bee, and is entirely developed by the visits of this insect. For that reason, its tall and stately spikes of flowers are at their best in those sunny, midsummer days when the bees are busiest. The projecting lower lip of the corolla forms an alighting platform for the bee, and as he pushes his way up the bell, to get at the honey which lies in a ring round the seed vessel at the top of the flower, the anthers of the stamens which lie flat on the corolla above him, are rubbed against his back. Going from flower to flower up the spike, he rubs pollen thus from one blossom on to the cleft stigma of another blossom, and thus the flower is fertilized and seeds are able to be produced. The life of each flower, from the time the bud opens till the time it slips off its corolla, is about six days. An almost incredible number of seeds are produced, a single Foxglove plant providing from one to two million seeds to ensure its propagation. It is noteworthy that although the flower is such a favourite with bees and is much visited by other smaller insects, who may be seen taking refuge from cold and wet in its drooping blossoms on chilly evenings, yet no animals will browse upon the plant, perhaps instinctively recognizing its poisonous character. The Foxglove derives its common name from the shape of the flowers resembling the finger of a glove. It was originally Folksglove – the glove of the ‘good folk’ or fairies, whose favourite haunts were supposed to be in the deep hollows and woody dells, where the Foxglove delights to grow. Folksglove is one of its oldest names, and is mentioned in a list of plants in the time of Edward III. Its Norwegian name, Revbielde (Foxbell), is the only foreign one that alludes to the Fox, though there is a northern legend that bad fairies gave these blossoms to the fox that he might put them on his toes to soften his tread when he prowled among the roosts. The earliest known form of the word is the Anglo-Saxon foxes glofa (the glove of the fox). The mottlings of the blossoms of the Foxglove and the Cowslip, like the spots on butterfly wings and on the tails of peacocks and pheasants, were said to mark where the elves had placed their fingers, and one legend ran that the marks on the Foxglove were a warning sign of the baneful juices secreted by the plant, which in Ireland gain it the popular name of ‘Dead Man’s Thimbles.’ In Scotland, it forms the badge of the Farquharsons, as the Thistle does of the Stuarts. The German name Fingerhut (thimble) suggested to Leonhard Fuchs (the well-known German herbalist of the sixteenth century, after whom the Fuchsia has been named) the employment of the Latin adjective Digitalis (from Digitabulum, a thimble) as a designation for the plant, which, as he remarked, up to the time when he thus named it, in 1542, had had no name in either Greek or Latin. The Foxglove was employed by the old herbalists for various purposes in medicine, most of them wholly without reference to those valuable properti
Six plants to grow with foxgloves
Most of us will be familiar with the UK’s native foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, but there are many other species you could grow, too, hailing from countries like Spain and Turkey.
This includes species like Digitalis parviflora, D. ferruginea and D. lanata. Despite their balmy origins, all are hardy and will enjoy growing in the same partially shady conditions as our native species. Bees will thank you, too.
More on growing foxgloves:
- Best foxgloves to grow
- Caring for foxgloves – Golden Rules (video)
- How to sow foxglove seeds
Discover six ideas for plants to grow with foxgloves, below.
Most of us will be familiar with the UK’s native foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, but there are many other species you could grow, too. 1
Small-flowered foxglove and bronze fennel
Small-flowered foxglove (Digitalis parviflora) and bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’)
Combine small-flowered foxglove (Digitalis parviflora) and bronze fennel Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) to create a display that is packed with intense, chocolate tones and textures.
Foxgloves, irises and hairy chervil
Strawberry foxgloves, bearded iris and hairy chervil
Here, strawberry foxgloves (Digitalis x mertonensis), Astrantia ‘Roma’ and hairy chervil (Chaerophyllum hirsutum) provide a soft pink foil for the star of the show, Iris ‘Dutch Chocolate’.
Foxgloves, orlaya and greater quaking grass
Strawberry foxgloves, orlaya and greater quaking grass
This wildlife-friendly container includes strawberry foxgloves (Digitalis x mertonensis), white laceflower (Orlaya grandiflora), greater quaking grass (Briza maxima) and campanulas (Campanula glomerata). Perfect for a spot in partial shade.
Euphorbias, snowy woodrush and foxgloves
Euphorbias, snowy woodrush and Grecian foxgloves
By limiting the colour palette, this combination of Grecian foxgloves (Digitalis lanata), snowy woodrush (Luzula nivea) and euphorbia (Euphorbia x martini) focusses on the fluffy textures and soaring flower spikes.
Ferns, foxgloves and campanulas
Ferns, foxgloves and campanulas
This combination has a more natural, woodland feel, and is ideal for planting in dappled shade beneath trees. Similar foxglove cultivars you could grow include ‘Sugar Plum’ and ‘Pam’s Split’. Planted with the foxgloves are campanulas (Campanula rotundifolia), Japanese tassel fern (Polystichum) and deschampsia.
Rusty foxgloves, white valerian and alliums
Grecian foxgloves, white valerian and alliums Advertisement
This combination uses Digitalis lanata again, where it provides lovely, burnt gold tones to the pairing. Here it’s planted with white-flowered valerian (Centranthus) and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’.
Caring for foxgloves
Foxgloves enjoy growing in a rich, well-draining soil, so keep them well-watered, right from the base of the plant. Don’t forget to save the seed once flowering is over, as it’s easy to grow foxgloves from seed.
Common or purple foxglove is a European biennial plant which was the source of chemicals in the drug digitalis.
Common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is a biennial or short-lived herbaceous perennial from western Europe in the plantain family (Plantaginaceae, which now contains the former figwort family, Scrophulariaceae, this used to be part of) that grows in woodland clearings, mountainsides and especially on disturbed sites, as well as being used as a garden ornamental. It was once the source of the heart stimulants digitoxin or digoxin, digitalin, digitalein, and digitonin, cardiac glycosides used in modern medicine in the drug digitalis.
Purple foxglove is an invasive weed in many places, including in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand.
The leaves were used in the treatment of heart failure since 1785, but now the drug is mostly created synthetically. Improper use of foxglove can cause either decreased or increased heart rate and can produce poisoning if used on a prolonged basis, so it should never be used to self-medicate. This plant, also sometimes commonly called purple foxglove, fairy gloves, fairy bells, lady’s glove, or many other things, is widely naturalized outside its native area, commonly near roads, and in some places is considered a weed or invasive plant. It is hardy in zones 4-9.
This plant forms a tight rosette of simple, coarse leaves with prominent veins for a nearly quilted look in its first year. The ovate to lanceolate leaves with barely noticeable rounded teeth on the margins grow on a winged petiole formed by the lower veins. The alternate leaves, up to a foot long, are covered with gray-white hairs that impart a downy texture on the upper surface and are wooly or hairy below. The clump remains low and close to the ground.
The plant forms a rosette of leaves (L and C) which have prominent veins (R).
In the second year an upright flower stem with smaller leaves is produced from the center of the basal clump. The spikes normally grow 3 to 4 feet tall with the individual flowers opening progressively up the elongated, terminal cluster (a simple or sparsely branched raceme). The species usually has a one-sided raceme with 20-80 flowers, but improved cultivars often have flowers completely surrounding the stem. The downward-facing, tapered, tubular (bell-shaped) flowers have four lobes. Each 1½ to 2½ inch long pink, purple or white corolla (the fused petals) has long hairs inside and is heavily spotted with dark purpled edged in white on the lower lip which serves as a landing platform for pollinators. The flowers are visited by bees – primarily bumblebees – which climb deep into the flower tube to get the nectar which lies in a ring at the base of the tube, and in the process rub against the anthers which lie flat on the upper inside surface of the corolla. When visiting another flower, the pollen rubs off on the cleft stigma. Hummingbirds may also visit the flowers. The flower spikes can be used for cut flowers.
The terminal flower spike (L) has numerous downward-facing bell-shaped flowers (C) heavily spotted inside (R).
Common foxglove blooms mainly in early summer.
The main bloom time is in early summer, but occasionally additional flower stems are produced later in the season, especially if the main flower stalks are cut after blooming. Pollinated flowers are followed by a rounded fruit capsule which splits open at maturity to release the numerous small brown, ridged seeds.Each plant can produce 1-2 million seeds which will readily self-seeding under favorable growing conditions. Deadhead after flowering to avoid excess numbers of seedlings, but some flowers must go to seed to maintain a permanent planting as if they were perennials.
Use common foxglove to add a bold, vertical dimension to perennial flower beds, shade gardens, and cottage gardens, particularly in front of a solid background, such as a building, hedge or shrubs where they will really stand out. They also naturalize readily in woodland gardens. Mass plantings can be very effective.
Use common foxglove in ornamental gardens to add vertical interest.
Grow common foxglove in full sun to light shade. Although it prefers light, moist soils high in organic matter, it will grow in almost any type of soil that is not too dry or too wet. Tall varieties may need to be staked to keep them upright. This plant has few pest problems, and is not bothered by deer or rabbits, although powdery mildew can infect the foliage in late summer and will occasionally be infested with aphids. Plants can become rather ragged looking after they finish flowering, and could be removed from the garden, if desired. All parts of the plant are toxic if ingested and contact with the leaves can irritate sensitive skin.
Sow seed in late summer where plants are desired to grow to bloom the following year, or sow in late spring. Seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover. Thin the seedlings to about 18 inches apart. New seedlings can be easily moved while still small.
Closeup of the very tiny seeds (L), seedlings germinating (C), and very young plant (R).
Common foxglove is naturally quite variable in size and flower color. There are a number of cultivars and a few hybrids commonly available, including:
Flowers of ‘Alba’ common foxglove.
‘Alba’ has white flowers.
- The ‘Camelot’ series comes in shades of lavender, rose and white, with 4 foot tall flower spikes.
- ‘Candy Mountain’ has large, upturned flowers that show the spotting better than other cultivars. The flowers change from rosy-pink to purple as the flowers age on strong stems.
- ‘Dalmatian Purple’ has deep lavender-purple flowers and frequently blooms in the first year.
- The ‘Excelsior Hybrids’ series comes in a range of pastel colors. This group has pink, white or yellow flowers that stand out horizontally (instead of being pendant like the species) and surround the stems. It was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993. It will not come true from seed.
- ‘Foxy’ is a short-statured selection (2-3 feet in flower) that blooms reliably from seed the first year with white, cream and rose blooms.
‘Foxy’ common foxglove.
‘Gloxinioides’ is a strain raised in the late 1880’s in the town of Shirley in Surrey, England, so is often given the cultivar name ‘The Shirley’, with tall, dense spikes of flowers in cream, salmon, pink and purple. It was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
- D. x mertonensis (strawberry foxglove) was created in 1925 by gardeners at the John Innes Horticultural Institute in England by crossing D. purpurea with D. grandiflora, a short-lived perennial with yellow flowers. It has coppery-pink flowers that are larger than either parent. It comes true from seed, blooms for several years, and is hardy to zone 3.
- ‘Sutton’s Apricot’, another RHS Award of Garden Merit winner (1993), has creamy salmon pink flowers.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
The common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is a common wild plant growing in woods and hedgerows. It is easy to spot with its large, purple-pink spikes of trumpet flowers in summer. It also makes an excellent garden plant, especially for shady positions.
But Digitalis purpurea isn’t the only foxglove, there are lots of other species, growing to a range of heights and with flowers in a wide range of colours – many beautifully spotted and speckled in contrasting colours.
Most foxgloves are beiennials – flowering in their second year from seed – or short-lived perennials. Most are more-or-less evergreen, so their rosettes of green leaves remain throughout the winter.
The flowers are very nectar-rich and are like magnets to bees and butterflies.
Just be aware that foxgloves contain the chemical digitalin, which is used in medicine to treat heart conditions, and all parts of the plant are toxic if eaten. Contact with the foliage may irritate the skin and eyes, so wear gloves, especially if you have sensitive skin.
How to grow foxgloves
Most foxgloves thrive in light or even deep shade, although some species come from the Mediterranean and so need a sunny position.
Although foxgloves prefer lighter soils, they will grow well on heavy clay soils with lots of added organic matter, such as compost.
As well as the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, the following are some of the other excellent garden plants:
- Digitalis ferruginea (right) Biennial or short-lived perennial. Yellowy-rusty-brown flowers.
- Digitalis grandiflora Perennial. Creamy-yellow flowers.
- Digitalis Illumination Pink Half-hardy, semi-evergreen perennial. Flowers vivid pink on the outside and honey-amber within.
- Digitalis x mertonensis Semi-evergreen perennial. Soft pink flowers.
- Digitalis parviflora Hardy perennial. Brownish-red flowers.
- Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora Biennial or short-lived perennial. Creamy-white flowers.
- Digitalis purpurea Primrose Carousel Biennial or short-lived perennial. Primrose-yellow flowers with claret speckling.
Sow seeds outdoors in late spring/early summer in a well-prepared seed bed. Keep the soil moist until germination takes place. Thin out the seedlings to 15cm (6in) apart when large enough to handle. Then either thin out to 60cm (2ft) apart or transplant them 60cm (2ft) apart into their flowering positions in autumn for flowering the following year.
Indoors, sow seeds from March to early June on the surface of compost in pots or seed trays at around 20°C (68°F). Don’t cover the seeds as they need light to germinate. Ensure that the soil is kept moist. Prick out seedlings when large enough to handle into 7.5-9cm (3-3.5in) pots. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost.
If you are collecting your own seed, sow it immediately when fresh – and thinly, as overcrowded seedlings are prone to fungal diseases.
Self-sown seedlings should be thinned out to give each plant room to develop.
Foxgloves can be planted at just about any time of year, but avoid planting when the soil is frozen solid, waterlogged or extremely dry.
Dig over the planting area, incorporating lots of organic matter – such as compost, leafmould or well-rotted manure. Dig a good sized hole big enough to easily accommodate the rootball.
Place the rootball in the planting hole and adjust the planting depth so that it is planted at the same depth as it was originally growing and the top of the rootball is level with the soil surface.
Mix in more organic matter with the excavated soil and fill in the planting hole. Water in well, apply a granular general feed over the soil around the plant and add a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) deep mulch of well-rotted garden compost or bark chippings around the root area.
Suggested planting locations and garden types
Flower borders and beds, patios, containers, city and courtyard gardens, cottage and informal gardens, woodland gardens, wildflower gardens.
How to care for foxgloves
Water foxglove plants regularly until they are fully established.
Feed every spring with a balanced granular plant food.
Mulch around plants in spring with a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) thick layer of organic matter, such as compost, composted bark or well-rotted manure.
After the first flowers have finished – especially with early flowering perennials – cut back the faded flower stems to ground level and give them a good feed with a liquid plant food – this may encourage a second flush of flowers.
After flowering, cut back the faded flower stems to ground level, unless you want to collect seed for future sowing or want the plants to self seed. In which case, cut down the stems after the seed has been collected or shed.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter
Full shade, Partial shade, Full sun
Chalky, Clay, Loamy, Sandy
Moist but well-drained
Up to 1.8m (6ft) depending on variety
Up to 90cm (3ft) depending on variety