Foxglove (Digitalis)

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

Cultivation

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.

Foxglove varieties

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.

Foxglove with pink flowers

Sowing foxgloves

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.

Planting foxgloves

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.

Flowering season(s) Summer
Foliage season(s) Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter
Sunlight Full shade, Partial shade, Full sun
Soil type Chalky, Clay, Loamy, Sandy
Soil pH Neutral
Soil moisture Moist but well-drained
Ultimate height Up to 1.8m (6ft) depending on variety
Ultimate spread Up to 90cm (3ft) depending on variety
Time to ultimate height 1 year