Close your eyes and imagine an English cottage garden. There in the background, up against the stone or earthen plaster walls...see those tall spikes of bell-shaped flowers? Those are foxgloves. If you want the same multi-layered, charmingly-chaotic look for your own landscape, then you're going to want to include these colorful garden standards.
Digitalis purpurea's large flowers and sturdy stems hold their own against foreground plantings. From a distance, as your eye makes the meandering journey from sidewalk to structure, it's rewarded by a spectacular multi-colored display and large, vivid green leaves.
Foxgloves are easy-to-grow, low-maintenance biennials that are well-suited to hard-to-reach background spaces. They attract honeybees and bumblebees as much as they draw attention, and if they become too abundant in your landscaping space, you can bring an armful of spikes indoors to enjoy as gorgeous cut flowers.
Background on a Background Plant
Native to England, Digitalis purpurea is known throughout Europe by many names:
- Fairy Thimbles
- Fairy's Glove
- Fairy Caps
- Virgin's Glove
- Witches' Glove
- Dead Men's Bells
- Bloody Fingers
If you've ever wondered about that popular catalog's weird name, now you know that Fingerhut is German for foxglove and not a reference to a horror movie prop storage facility. And if you want to know what's up with the association between the plant and fashion accessories, a peek at the tubular flowers will help it make some sense; their shape is similar to that of a slender finger on a dainty glove...which is how the plant earned its genus name, Digitalis.
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. 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.
— M. Grieve's A Modern Herbal
Various other species originate elsewhere in Europe, and for centuries the plant's leaves have been pressed into service (literally) for a variety of medicinal purposes. Only in the last century has it been cultivated specifically to treat cardiac issues, and only under the watchful eye of a physician.
Sold under various names such as Lanoxin, Digox, Lanoxin Pediatric, and Digitek, digitalis (the generic term for the pharmaceutical) affects a patient's heart rate.
But you don't want to mess with foxglove as a home remedy; all parts of the plant are poisonous when eaten, which is why it's best planted in those tricky spots we mentioned earlier. Many people experience skin irritation after handing foxgloves, so we recommend wearing gardening gloves when you're gardening the gloves.
Choosing a Garden Spot For Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea thrives as a wildflower in most of western, central and southern UK. It prefers the types of environments one would imagine supernatural creatures to dwell; wooded glades and hollows. It can handle full shade in hotter environments, or full sun in cooler mountainous or maritime climates. In spite of its tough, deep root system, it thrives in craggy, rocky, low-soil areas.
Here in North America, the biennial foxglove adapts far beyond the scope of its native climate with minimal compensation. Plant foxglove anywhere you need a vertical splash of color, and bloom details you can admire even from a distance. It flowers in its second year, dies that fall, and regrows from planted or self-sown seeds. On rare occasions, new shoots emerge from older roots surviving to their third season.
USDA Hardiness Zones: An herbaceous biennial (infrequently called a short-lived perennial) in zones 4-8, favoring coastal climates.
Sunlight Preferences: Full sun to full shade (depending on heat). Varieties grown for pharmaceutical use are typically cultivated in full sun for highest potency, but most D. purpurea varieties are adaptable. We recommend locations with late afternoon or dappled shade as the "sweet spot" for your best shot at success.
Moisture Requirements: Foxgloves must be kept evenly moist. Don't let them dry out. Even though they grow deep roots, they also depend on their spreading, shallow roots for nutrient uptake.
Soil Preferences: D. purpurea requires well-drained soils. Add a little sand and rich organic matter to sites with poor drainage. While foxgloves do fine in medium soils, you want to encourage them to be spectacular. Several "go-to" garden sites recommend a wide pH latitude (5 to 8) but we recommend soil just a smidge on the acidic side.
Plant Height: As tall as five feet, but usually around four; check your packet as we list different varieties and mixes according to height as well as hue.
Plant Width: One to three feet spread.
Growth Habit: Flowers grow on the exposed sides of tall, tapering spikes. Basal leaves emerge as ground-level rosettes, and in their second year, they form compact mounds.
Bloom Period: May to early July. There's a potential for extended bloom (or a late summer encore) with the removal of spent spikes.
Flowers: Tubular 2-3" blooms hang downward from the stalks in a layered fashion. The flowers grow smaller in size the farther up they progress, adding to the plant's tapered look. Foxglove flowers are varying shades of pink or lavender, many with distinct spots. White varieties are no less spectacular...just ask the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, who show up for the copious nectar rather than the ambiance.
Foliage: Foxglove leaves are oval-shaped and somewhat crumpled, with noticeable veins. They can grow up to a foot long, and have a velvety silver covering of fuzz on the tops, with slightly longer down on the undersides. Even though the leaves are technically toothed on the edges, the serrations are barely noticeable.
Pests & Diseases: While foxglove isn't particularly susceptible to common garden issues, fungal problems can wreak havoc on the dense foliage, spreading to and weakening the flowering spike. Keep an eye out for aphids, avoid getting the leaves wet, and remove any foliage that shows symptoms of rot, mold, or fungus. Don't use chemical pesticides on your foxglove plants. Pollinators, birds, and pest-eating wasps don't appreciate it, and healthy plants can withstand minor insect infestations.
Maintenance: Remove the spikes after all the blooms have given up the ghost, and remove the leaves after the first hard frost if you want to keep things looking tidy. If you allow the seeds to drop, you'll keep the cycle going naturally; some gardeners plant seeds every year for the first 1-3 years to make sure there are always plants at their peak during the summer. Afterward, they let nature take its course.
Harvesting: Unlike the tobacco industry, we at Seed Needs want our customers to be around for a long time...so we're not going to offer advice on harvesting foxglove leaves for medicinal use. But, when properly cut at the base and immediately placed in water, flowery foxglove spikes make fantastic (and widely-used) specimens for floral displays.
Safety Precautions: Once again, we recommend wearing either gardening or nitrile gloves when handling these plants, as some people experience skin irritation. (There's no need to go overboard and buy a hazmat suit.) Be sure to pick up any dropped blossoms to keep them out of reach of pets and little kids.
All parts of the foxglove plant—leaves, flowers, stems, seeds, or roots—are poisonous when eaten. In spite of this, foxgloves are among the most popular and recognizable garden plants, and with certain precautions, are safe to grow and use as a cut flower.
Garden Buddies: Our customers love to grow foxglove with Bells of Ireland, and we're fans of throwing borage plants into the foreground. This trio works best in cool-summer, part-to-full-sun spots where gardeners want to let these easy re-seeders do their own thing in the far corners of their gardens. Peonies, lilies, and roses are traditional foxglove partners, and they get along with alliums.
The fun thing about English cottage gardens is that they're informal and fun, and these tall background stunners aren't easily upstaged...no matter what you plant in front of them.
Growing Foxglove from Seed
We usually recommend starting tiny, surface-sown seeds indoors, but many professional nursery growers warn against fungal problems caused by humid indoor environments. If you're growing foxglove from seed inside, be sure to keep the air moving with a fan and use sterile soil in biodegradable seed trays or individual peat pots. Don't let your teenagers leave their socks or gym clothes in the vicinity of your foxglove starts...or play this game within fifty feet of your indoor nursery.
Try starting seeds mid-summer to increase your chances of enjoying foxglove blooms the following season.
If you decide to direct-sow your foxglove seeds outside, mix your seeds with fine gardening sand (about a cup per standard packet) and scatter them on the surface of finely-raked, moist soil. Keep the soil consistently moist with fine mist irrigation.
Ready for the stats?
- Seed Treatment: None required.
- When to Plant Outdoors: After all chance of spring frost is in the rearview mirror.
- When to Plant Indoors: Six to eight weeks before last spring frost.
- Seed Depth: Surface sow no more than 1/16" deep.
- Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 18" to 24" apart. You can crowd foxglove in more arid regions, but overcrowding in lusher environments—particularly in full shade—may lead to fungus and wilt.
- Days to Germination: 7-14 days at 65° to 70°F.
Deep-rooted foxglove doesn't like to be transplanted, so be sure to use peat pots or peat-free, sustainable CowPots™ and soak them well before you plant them (pot and all) outside. They're usually ready to be transplanted about three weeks after emergence.