Foxgloves (Digitalis) are popular in cottage garden planting schemes, loved for their spires of bell-shaped, bee-friendly tubular flowers. Most foxgloves are biennial, meaning they put on root and foliage growth in year one, and then flower and set seed in year two, before dying. However, some varieties of foxglove are short-lived perennials.
Digitalis purpurea is native to areas of western Europe, including the UK. Its purple, or occasionally white, bell flowers with spotted throats are a familiar sight in woodland clearings, heathland and gardens where they bloom from June to September. Digitalis purpurea is a valuable plant for wildlife. Long-tongued bumblebees feed from the flowers and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of several moth species.
Bear in mind that all parts of foxgloves are poisonous, and can kill an adult human if any part of the plant is ingested. You may want to avoid growing them if you have pets or young children.
How to grow foxgloves
Grow foxgloves in moist but well-drained soil in full sun to full shade – some varieties are more shade tolerant than others. Deadhead spent blooms after flowering to encourage a second flush or let them self-seed over the garden. Biennial types can be dug up after they have set seed but perennial foxgloves should be cut back for autumn, ready to bloom again the following year.
Most foxgloves thrive in dappled shade. However some species, such as Digitalis parviflora and Digitalis obscura, require full sun to grow well. Foxgloves will grow in any soil type but do best in a well-drained, moist soil. Avoid planting foxgloves in very wet or very dry soil.
As Digitalis purpurea is biennial, you might not get flowers the same year you plant the plants. What’s more, if you want your foxgloves to self-seed around the garden and flower every year, you will need to plant foxgloves two years in a row.
How to identify foxglove leaves
The leaves of Digitalis purpurea are green and softly hairy with bluntly-toothed margins. They are oval-shaped and 15-30cm long. In the first year, foxgloves produce a basal rosette of leaves, and a tall flower spike emerges in the second year with smaller stem leaves.
Foxglove leaves could be confused with the foliage of several other species including comfrey, great mullein, green alkanet, borage or ploughman’s-spikenard. Distinguishing between these plants can be difficult but becomes easier once they begin to flower.
How to plant foxgloves
Plant foxgloves in spring or autumn, directly into the garden. Foxgloves can also be planted in large, sturdy containers in loam-based compost. Water in well and continue to water foxgloves in pots regularly, especially in hot weather.
Many foxgloves self-seed around the garden and seedlings often appear near the parent plant. These can be transplanted to other areas where they have more space to develop, or they can be potted up so you can ensure they are watered regularly and they have better protection from slugs while you grow them on.
All you need to do to ensure foxgloves disperse their seed is to avoid deadheading the flowers until seeds have developed and ripened. You can then collect fresh seed and scatter it directly where you want foxgloves to grow. Alternatively, sow seed finely in a tray of seed compost – don’t cover the seed but instead place a propagator lid or sheet of glass over the tray. Seedlings grown in trays should be overwintered in a cold frame, before planting out in spring.
As foxgloves are extremely toxic, you should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling seeds or any other part of the plant, or wear gloves. Keep plants and seeds away from small children and make sure older children can identify and know about the dangers of ingesting foxgloves.
Most foxgloves flower in late spring and summer.
How to care for foxgloves
Foxgloves are trouble-free plants. You may need to protect young plants from slugs and snails. While caterpillars do sometimes eat foxglove leaves and flowers, these provide food for baby birds in spring, so it’s best to leave them be.