Foxgloves are reliable self-seeders and appear in different parts of the garden every other year. Here are some planting and care tips.
The foxglove genus (Digitalis) is part of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae). There are around 25 species throughout Europe, North Africa and West Asia. The common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is the most widespread. It grows along forest paths and in glades. There are a few garden varieties with white, apricot or pink petals. The large yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) may be found at higher altitudes. The straw foxglove (Digitalis lutea) is more delicate, growing to around 2 feet tall.
Appearance and Growth
Foxgloves either grow every two years or as a short-lived perennial. In the first year, the plant forms a rooted, evergreen rosette of leaves with petiole, lanceolate leaves measuring up to 7.87 inches long. They have clearly visible, net-like leaf veins and may be hairy in some species. From the leaf rosette, a single inflorescence will grow in the following year. This grows up to six and a half feet tall. This bears a number of purple-red, bell-shaped single flowers with a striking pattern of dots on the throat. They open in June and bloom through to August. 0.47 inch capsule fruits develop from pollinated flowers, distributing their plentiful, fine seeds in late summer.
The foxglove is both a toxic and a healing plant in one. The substances it contains, Digitalis glycosides, are used in low doses to treat heart conditions. As all parts of the foxglove plant are toxic, they should not be planted in gardens where children regularly play. They are therefore also not suitable for areas bordering children’s gardens or for planting in playgrounds. Eating even just two or three leaves can be fatal. But as all parts of the plant taste very bitter, poisonings are thankfully rare.
Location and Soil
Most foxglove species prefer humus-rich, moderately moist soil that should be both nutrient-rich and low in lime. They like partial shade, but also grow in more intense light as long as the soil is sufficiently moist. The foxglove feels less comfortable in beds with full sun, as it does not tolerate direct midday sun well.
As foxgloves, like most shrubs, are available to buy in pots, they can be planted into a bed at any time of the year. It’s best to group three to eight specimens together initially to achieve the best effect.
Soil should be enriched with humus as needed, and these plants also like a mulch layer made up of half rotted leaves. Once it has established, the foxglove will generally get by without fertilization and additional watering. Excess seedlings can be removed from the bed with a weeding trowel. Seed heads should be removed in good time if you want to avoid this plant’s all too eager self-seeding. This mostly also increases the foxglove’s life expectancy. Separating the rootstock of the foxglove is not recommended and not necessary. Its tap roots are so sensitive that the process often goes wrong.
Like many biennial and short-lived perennials, foxglove is a typical wanderer in a flower bed: as it self-seeds, it turns up in new places each year without being too troublesome. This also gives a shrubbery a natural look. Foxglove can be paired with leafy plants such as rodgersia, hostas or coral bells (Heuchera). It also goes well with flowering shrubs with similar planting location requirements, such as wide-leaved bellflowers (Campanula latifolia var. macrantha) and false goat’s beard. With its deeply penetrating taproots, the foxglove can even establish under trees with intolerant root systems, such as birch and Norway maples.
As most foxglove species and varieties have light flowers, they are particularly effective against dark backgrounds, such as in front of hedges or between loosely growing shrubs. They are also charming in natural hedgerows. If their spot is shady and moist, ferns are good companions.
Foxgloves add vertical structure to flower beds thanks to their upright growth pattern, so are ideal for combining with flatter perennials. As various varieties grow to vastly different heights (between 2 and 6.5 feet tall), you should take the plant’s final height into consideration.
Tip: if you sow a blend of different colored foxgloves, such as “Excelsior”, the surrounding shrubs should provide a calm, subtle background. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is an ideal choice with its dense foliage and light green flowers. Good companions for pink or white foxgloves include purple cranesbill (Geranium x magnificum) and Wlassov’s cranesbill (Geranium wlassovianum), which form a flat sea of purple flowers out of which the foxglove can tower jauntily. Similar to the hollyhock, these versatile plants will also fit seamlessly into a traditional cottage garden. Their inflorescences are not just attractive in flower beds, they also look great in bouquets and as table decorations.
Important Species and Varieties
There are various foxglove species and varieties, with the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) offering the most variety: the wild variety grows to between 3.2 and 4.6 feet tall and is light red to purple-red. Foxglove “Gloxiniaeflorea” has larger flowers than the wild variety and grows slighter taller too (light pink to hot pink with dark red mottling, up to 4.9 feet tall). The aforementioned “Excelsior” blend ensures variety in your beds with a range of foxgloves in purples, pinks, yellows and whites. The plants grow up to 4 feet tall.
One particular variety sure to catch the eye is “Pam’s Choice”, as the white flowers feature burgundy spots on their throats. It blooms from June to August, and even thrives in sunny locations. It grows up to 4 to 5 feet tall. Subtly spotted variety “Alba” only grows just over 3 feet tall. If you like things more muted, consider sowing the variety “Snow Thimble”. It is pure white, on the smaller side (2.6 to 3.2 feet) and is ideal for combining with other colors. As suggested by the name, the variety “Apricot” stands out among otherwise white to pink foxgloves. It grows to around 3.2 feet tall. We’ve collected some decorative plant photos of foxgloves in our gallery for you.
An overview of the most important foxglove species:
- The rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea): very slim, dense racemes with orange-red flowers, up to 4 feet high, relatively drought-tolerant and therefore suitable for sunnier locations
- The sunset foxglove (Digitalis obscura): around 2.3 feet tall, yellow-orange flowers from July to August. Only winter hardy in protected locations that are not too moist, vineyard climate
- The large yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora): large yellow, wide open bell-shaped flowers from June to August with brownish internal markings, up to 3.3 feet high, wild plant native to Europe
- The common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): purple-pink, bell-shaped flowers from June to July, up to 4.3 feet tall, native to Europe
- The strawberry foxglove (Digitalis x mertonensis): Hybrid of common and large yellow foxgloves, up to 2.3 feet tall, large orange-red flowers
Foxgloves tend to self-seed in suitable locations, propagating independently. If you want to sow this plant by seed, do so in a suitable location in late summer, immediately once the seeds are mature. Simply scatter seeds onto a bed and then cover the area with a thin layer of humus. Alternatively, you can sow them into sowing compost in small pots. Sowing seeds in propagator trays is not advisable, as the young foxgloves are difficult to prick out thanks to their taproots.
Diseases and Pests
Foxgloves are robust and hardly impacted by pests and plant-borne diseases at all. They are rarely damaged by slugs and snails.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do foxgloves look like?
Foxgloves (Digitalis) can be easily identified by their high, singular inflorescences. Their bell-shaped single flowers have a shape characteristic of foxgloves, and the inside of the throat features flecking. The green leaves are lanceolate and form a rosette from which the inflorescence sprouts.
How tall do foxgloves grow?
Depending on the species, foxgloves can grow to 2 to 6.5 feet tall.
When do foxgloves flower?
Foxgloves mostly flower from June to August.
Are foxgloves perennials?
Foxgloves are generally biennials or short-lived perennials.
Are white foxgloves toxic?
Yes, all Digitalis species are toxic, including white foxgloves.