There has long been an association between fairies and foxgloves. Folklore says that fairies gave the flowers to foxes to wear on their paws so they could tread silently when hunting. There is certainly something magical about their slender spires and they make excellent border plants, lending both romance and an airy architecture to gardens as well as providing ample food for bees. Seed sown in May/June will provide foxglove flowers next year. Or buy established plants now for instant impact this season.
Foxgloves in the Wild
The wild foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is instantly recognisable and probably one of the first flowers we learn in childhood. It has been christened with a variety of playful names: witches’ gloves, bee catchers, dead men’s thimbles, floppy dock, tod-tails and fairy bells. Although fairies are associated with woodland, foxgloves are inhabitants of woodland edges, heaths and hedgerows, preferring dappled light to deep shade. However, they will grow in full sun, providing the soil is moist and humus-rich. They naturally thrive in acid soils but will tolerate a wide pH range.
Digitalis purpurea is a biennial or occasionally a short-lived perennial, producing a rosette of downy leaves in its first year and then a flower spike in the following one. Foxglove cultivars derived from the wild form are also biennial, although if the flower stem is removed before setting seed the plant may survive another season. It will also produce secondary, smaller flower spikes.
Foxgloves in the border
Why grow foxgloves? Foxgloves are nostalgic plants which instantly create a relaxed, cottage garden mood. They associate beautifully with other cottage garden plants such as ferns, campanulas, geraniums and roses. Most perennials are mound-forming, so foxgloves are one of those useful plants which create vertical accents and break up monotony. Their airy spires add a lightness of touch to the heavier, solid forms of background shrubs. Light coloured varieties are also excellent for illuminating shady spots. They are best placed in the middle or back of borders and look particularly stunning when planted in groups.
Quick guide to growing foxgloves
- Longevity: Most garden foxgloves are biennial (occasionally short-lived perennials).
- Hardiness: Biennial species are fully hardy.
- Soil: Unfussy but ideally free draining soil which is moisture retentive and rich in organic matter. Particularly thrive in acidic soils but will grow in a wide pH.
- Flowering time: May to September with peak in June.
- Water: Enjoy plenty of moisture. Plants grown in very dry positions may end up stunted. Water well after planting until established.
- Sun: Dappled shade, although will grow in full sun if the soil is moist.
- Aftercare: After flowering, if seed isn’t required, cut back the main flower spike right down to the base. This will promote flowering side shoots and encourage normally biennial species to survive another year.
- Problems: Protect small seedlings from slugs and snails. Mature plants can be affected by powdery mildew after flowering but will normally recover on their own.
- Toxicity: Highly toxic
Best Foxglove cultivars
Foxglove ‘Dalmatian Mixed’
Unlike other cultivars, the Dalmatian series will typically bloom in its first year. They make quite compact, well branching plants about 50-75cm tall Their short stature makes them more suitable for containers.
Raised by Thompson and Morgan, the Candy series are particularly showy foxgloves and the first with upward facing flowers. The dark pink buds open to reveal rose-pink blooms with freckled throats which are densely packed all the way round their sturdy stems. Up to 140cm high, they are tall plants for the back of the border and look stunning in drifts.
The Camelot series is another tall foxglove, reaching up to 150cm with the flowers packed all around the stem. It has a wide range of gorgeous colours from lavender, cream, rose and white, all with heavily spotted throats.
These tall, pure white foxgloves were popularised by Gertrude Jekyll who advised using them to lighten shady corners. Bees cannot see white flowers and therefore they are less frequently pollinated.
White flowered foxgloves can be distinguished from coloured ones by examining the midrib on the underside of the leaf. In white forms the midrib is green, in coloured ones it is purple.
‘Pam’s choice’ and ‘Pam’s Split’
This rogue seedling was found on a compost heap! It’s an eye-catching specimen with tall spires of large white flowers distinguished by their dark maroon throats. ‘Pam’s Split’ is another sport with very unusual split petals.
Foxglove Illumination Series
The Illumination series has transformed this cottage garden staple into something distinctly more exotic. Bred by Thompson and Morgan they are a cross between the Canary Island foxglove, Digitalis canariensis (formerly Isoplexis canariensis) and our native foxglove. The resulting plants have inherited the vibrant deep pinks and apricots of their Canary Island relatives. They are striking plants which due to their sterile flowers will flower continuously for several months. They do need a sheltered well-drained position to survive the winter as they are half-hardy.
How to grow foxgloves
Established plants – Will flower this year and then die. Allowing some to go to seed will provide future flowers in their second year.
Plug Plants – Will flower in their second year. Saves on the effort of seed sowing. Plant them out for 2 years running to ensure continuous flowers every year from self-seeded plants.
Growing foxgloves from seed
When to sow: May-June
This will produce seedlings which are mature enough to get through their first winter.
Some varieties, some as ‘Dalmatian Series’, will flower in their first year and therefore it is advisable to sow them earlier in March/April. Perennial foxgloves can also be sown at this time.
How to sow foxglove seed
- Unless you have an acre of garden or thousands of friends, stick to half or mini seed trays. This will provide you with plenty of seedlings.
- Foxglove seed is tiny. Use a fine seed compost – sieving it if necessary.
- Try to get the surface as flat as possible. A tamper is an invaluable tool for this.
- Either water the compost before sowing or use a fine rose on your watering can – otherwise your seeds will get washed away.
- Don’t use the whole packet of seed! Try to sow sparingly and evenly so the seedlings won’t be jammed together.
- Don’t cover the seed. It is tiny and it needs light to germinate.
- Create a humid environment – place the tray inside a clear plastic bag or cover with a piece of glass/clear plastic.
- Place the seed trays in bright light somewhere warm but not hot.
- Don’t let them dry out!
- Once seedlings are large enough, prick them out into 9cm pots or modules.
- Plant out into their final positions in the autumn.
Foxgloves can also be sown direct into an area of cleared ground which has been raked to a fine tilth. Scatter the seed over the surface, lightly rake and water in afterwards using a fine rose. Progressively thin seedlings to eventual spacing of 45-60cm
Foxgloves are prolific self-seeders – the dried-out flower spike is flexible and light and easily blown about, launching millions of tiny seeds to be carried in the wind. Allowing at least some of your plants to go to seed ensures a continuity of display for minimal effort. If you are sowing foxglove seeds or planting plugs for the first time, remember that as they are biennial you will need to plant them for two consecutive years to get self-sown flowers every year without a gap in blooming.
If you want to collect your seeds and sow them indoors you can do this as soon as they are ripe in August. However, this may result in seedlings which are too small to plant out in autumn and therefore they will need to be overwintered in a frost free place. Alternatively, wait until the spring.
Learn to recognise self-sown seedlings and in the spring carefully transplant them into ideal positions. They have fragile, fibrous root systems which like to grow sideways rather than downwards in order to support their vertical flower stems. Once disturbed they are prone to toppling over and drying out. Transplant them in cool, shady weather and if possible, lift them with a substantial amount of soil attached to the root. Water them well both before and after transplanting and firm them in gently but firmly. Continue to water them each week until they are established.
Bear in mind that small foxglove seedlings will grow into substantial rosettes so allow 45cm-60cm between them.
Foxgloves and Bees
What do you see?”
The cool green woodland,
The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,
I’ve honey here for thee!
by Cicely Mary Barker
Watching bees disappear into foxglove flowers and bumble about noisily is an additional joy to growing foxgloves and they make excellent wildlife plants.
Foxgloves have numerous adaptations to ensure pollination. The violet colours of foxglove flowers are especially visible to bees. Often growing in colonies and with multiple flowers on a stem, a stand of foxgloves forms a purple haze which can’t be missed by passing bees. Moreover, their tall flower spikes poke above surrounding vegetation so they can be easily spotted.
They have evolved to be pollinated by long-tongued bees – the petals are fused into a long tunnel with its nectar reward hard to reach at the base of the flower. Guided into the flower by its spots, the large lower lip provides a convenient landing pad and the wide mouth a welcoming entrance. Guard hairs at the entrance give the bee a firm foothold as it squeezes down the narrowing tunnel, closing its wings and pressing its body against the reproductive parts on the roof, where it both picks up pollen from the male anthers and brushes pollen from other flowers onto the female stigma. The same guard hairs deter smaller insects which could raid the nectar without brushing against the reproductive parts. To prevent self-pollination, the male anthers open first releasing pollen and are exhausted by the time the female parts become receptive.
The flowers open from the bottom up, the top of the flower spike continuing to produce flowers over numerous weeks until it is exhausted. This lengthy flowering period maximises opportunities for pollination and acts as an insurance against spells of bad weather when insects aren’t flying.
Foxgloves: poison and cure
All parts of the foxglove are poisonous and can cause abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and ultimately death from heart attack. For centuries, it was widely used as a herbal cure against dropsy (the build-up of fluid in body tissue), although often with fatal results. In the eighteenth century a botanist and physician called William Withering discovered that foxgloves could be used as a treatment for heart failure and his insistence on accurate and disciplined dosing pioneered the development of modern pharmacology from herbal medicine.
Critical shortages of drugs during the second world war led to the establishment of County Herb Committee, a medicinal plant collecting scheme set up by the British Ministry of Health. Tonnes of foxglove leaves were collected and dried for the war effort, as Lesley Gare records:
I was eleven when the war broke out in September 1939, and was at school in a village called Ingatestone in Essex…… The grounds of the school contained large numbers of foxglove (Digitalis) plants and we were given the use of an old stable to dry the leaves before they could be sent to a drug manufacturer. We used to string the leaves using a bodkin to thread the leaves onto the pieces of string, which were hung the length of the stable to dry in the air.
The active ingredient in Foxglove continues to be used in modern medicine as a heart stimulant.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about foxgloves – have a look at our full selection here.