Digitalis purpurea, the foxglove or common foxglove, is a poisonous species of flowering plant belong to the Digitalis genus, which contains about 20 species. The Digitalis genus is a member of the Plantaginaceae or plantain family, native to and widespread throughout most of temperate Europe. It has also naturalised in parts of North America and some other temperate regions. This plant, also sometimes commonly called purple foxglove, fairy gloves, fairy bells or lady’s glove. All parts of foxglove are poisonous. Historically, compounds from the plant have been used in heart medication; depending on the species, ingestion of Digitalis can induce symptoms ranging from nausea to cardiac arrythmia.
Common foxglove is a uniquely eye-catching plant, a tall, slender specimen with tubular blooms, often with colorful speckles. It is a fast-growing plant that generally flowers in its second season before dying. In its first year, the plant produces only a basal clump of foliage, but in its second year, the plant sends forth 2- to 5-foot tall stalks lined with beautiful funnel-shaped pink, white, or purple flowers with white or purple spots lining the throats. The fruit is a capsule which splits open at maturity to release the numerous tiny 0.1-0.2 mm seeds. Planted from seeds, the plants usually don't flower until their second year, but foxgloves freely self-seed, creating a sustained patch that produces flowers every year.
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1 -8 feet
1 - 2 feet
5.5 - 6.5
Varieties of Common Foxglove
Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) has several popular cultivars:
'Goldcrest' has yellowy-peach blooms and lance-shaped dark green leaves.
'Candy Mountain' boasts bright, rosy-pink flowers; this variety faces upwards rather than nodding down.
‘Pam’s Choice’ has white flowers with burgundy throats.
‘Rose Shades’ has two-toned flowers, featuring rose and white blossom spikes.
'Foxy' is a shorter cultivar (27 inches) with purple, white, and pink flowers. It often blooms in its first year.
'Camelot' blooms fairly reliably in its first year, producing cream, lavender, rose, and white flowers on 28- to 40-inch stems.
'Excelsior group' is a very popular group of 4- to 6-foot hybrids in several colors.
'Temple Bells' a small variety with yellow and brown blooms.
'Dalmation Purple' producing spikes with deep-lavender to purple flowers and plants sometimes reaching a height of 4 feet or more, and may need staking.
'Alba' is a great biennial for bees and is best when grown as a shade-loving plant and has white flowers.
'Gloxinioides' is a strain raised in the late 1880’s in the town of Shirley in Surrey, England, so is often given the cultivar name ‘The Shirley’, with tall, dense spikes of flowers in cream, salmon, pink and purple. It was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
'Sutton’s Apricot', another RHS Award of Garden Merit winner (1993), has creamy salmon pink flowers.
There are also some hybrid foxgloves to consider:
Digitalis × mertonensis ‘Summer King’ (Merten's foxglove, strawberry foxglove) is a cross between D. purpurea and D. grandiflora, producing a short-lived perennial species (three to four years) with pink flowers.
Digiplexis is a hybrid of D. purpurea and Isoplexis canariensis, the Canary Island foxglove. Its flowers are purplish-pink on the outside, with yellow throats with burgundy spotting on the inside. It, too, is a short-lived perennial.
Planting Common Foxglove
Foxglove prefers moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter and grows best in full sun with light afternoon shade.
If you don’t have rich soil, add compost and mulch the area well. Set bigger container plants out in spring or fall. To plant:
Prepare the soil by mixing in a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost.
Space containers 1 to 2 feet apart.
Dig the hole twice the diameter of the container the plant is in.
Place the plant in the hole with the top of the root ball level with the soil surface.
Fill in around the root ball and firm the soil.
Foxglove is easy to grow from seed.
Sow seeds outside in containers in late-spring or sow seeds in late summer in the garden where plants are desired to grow.
Seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover.
Any seedlings should be planted into the garden bed in early fall so that they can establish the root system before cold weather arrives.
How to Get Foxglove to Bloom
If a common foxglove is in the second year of its lifecycle, it generally blooms. Failure to bloom (or poor blooming) is usually due to one of the following:
Plant is in its first year of growth: Foxgloves are biennial plants that generally do not bloom until the second year. Be patient; your plant may bloom the following spring.
Plant gets insufficient sun or water: A foxglove that doesn't get at least a few hours of sun per day, or that doesn't get at least 1 inch of water per week, is often stingy with its flowers.
Plant gets too much fertilizer: Foxgloves respond badly to too much feeding. Unless your soil is rather poor, foxgloves generally don't need much, if any, artificial fertilizer.
Common Foxglove Care
Common foxglove is considered a biennial flower, so to ensure first season blooms, they should be planted from potted nursery plants that are already in their second year of growth. Some nursery plants are grown from cultivars that are designed to flower in their first year. In any case, the best way to ensure first-year flowers is to buy nursery plants.
If you choose to plant from seeds (a much more economical approach), be prepared for the plants to take a full year to get established before flowering in their second season. While some seed varieties are bred for first-season blooms, this can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
Foxgloves are fairly easy plants to grow in moist, rich soil in full sun to partial shade. Foxgloves come in different sizes and should be spaced accordingly, but as a general rule, it is good to space them about 2 feet apart. Stake the taller types to prevent them from flopping over in a wind storm. They can become somewhat scraggly after flowering is complete, so the plants are often pulled from the garden at this point—or immediately after the seeds have scattered themselves in the garden.
Grow foxglove plants in a full sun to partial shade location. Tailor the amount of sunshine you give this biennial to your climate. If you live in the south, give it some shade, as full sun will be too hot for the plants. In the north, it will thrive in full sun, though some shade is tolerated.
Foxgloves like rich, well-draining soil that's slightly acidic, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5.
Foxglove is susceptible to crown rot, so provide it with good drainage. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked. If there is a dry period in the summer and it hasn't received 1 inch of rain in a week or the top 2 inches of soil is dry, water the plant thoroughly with a drip hose. Avoid overhead watering, which can encourage fungal disease.
Temperature and Humidity
Foxgloves tend to do better in cooler temperatures and may wilt in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Planted seeds will germinate when temperatures reach between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Foxgloves are not fussy about humidity, though excessive humidity may encourage some fungal diseases. Provide good air circulation by giving them sufficient spacing.
A 1-inch layer of well-decomposed mulch usually provides sufficient nutrients for foxgloves. In good soil, fertilizer is rarely essential and excess nitrogen can actually harm the flower growth.
However, if your soil is very poor, you can add a small handful of slow-release 5-10-5 fertilizer in the early spring. Scatter it around the plant and then water over the fertilizer to help it settle. Avoid having the fertilizer touch the foliage, as it may burn the plant.
Pruning and Propagating Common Foxglove
As a general rule, deadheading the early flower spikes after the blooms have faded often results in a second, lesser flowering period. However, if you wish for the plants to self-seed in the garden, then leave some flower spikes in place to cast their seeds.
Propagating Common Foxglove
Foxgloves are generally propagated from seeds collected from the flower heads after the blooms have faded. Foxgloves seeds mature on the stalk and are ready to harvest by mid to late summer. Make sure to do it before the seed capsules have burst and spread seed around the garden.
In mid to late summer, look for the browned seed capsules on the central flower spike of the foxglove plant, These will be at the base of the flower blossoms.
Wearing gloves, remove the seed capsules and shake them upside down into a paper bag or envelope. The tiny seeds should be visible. Store the seeds in a dry location until planting time.
The foxglove plant can now be pulled and discarded, as it will not bloom again (unless you have a perennial species). Again, wear gloves when handling a foxglove plant.
To start seeds indoors: About 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost, fill trays or small containers with a seed-starter mix, then dampen the mix.
Thinly scatter seeds across the top of the dampened seed starter mix, and cover with a thin layer of vermiculite.
Set the tray or pots in a sheltered area with plenty of light, at a temperature of 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Check regularly and mist the soil if it becomes dry. In 14 to 21 days, seedlings should sprout.
Continue to grow the seedlings in a bright location, thinning them out as needed. Keep the seedlings evenly moist, but not wet.
Plant the seedlings outdoors when all danger of frost has passed. As with any indoor seedlings, harden them off for a week or so before planting outdoors.
Common foxgloves can be pulled up and discarded after blooming ends in late summer, as they generally do not return again. First-year plants that have not bloomed, however, should be covered with a thick layer of dried leaves or mulch after the ground freezes in late fall or early winter to moderate soil temperatures over the winter. Make sure to remove the mulch promptly in the spring to avoid crown rot.
If you wish, you can leave a few old plants in place to allow them to self-seed in the garden. In the spring, these older plants should be pulled out and discarded, as they won't bloom again.
Caution: Wear gloves when handling foxgloves, as it is possible to absorb small amounts of toxins through the skin.
Pests and Plant Diseases
Common foxglove can be prone to attack from insect pests including aphids, mealy bugs, slugs, and Japanese beetles. Mild infestations are often handled by predatory insects, but serious infestations can be treated with insecticidal soaps or chemical spray pesticides.
Foxglove can also be affected by a variety of funguses, such as powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and leaf spot. Minimize these problems by giving the plants good air circulation and making sure they are planted in well-draining soil. Treat seriously affected plants with spray fungicides.
Crown rot can be a problem, sometimes caused by white fungal spores or by dense, poorly draining soils. Seriously affected plants will need to be discarded.
Common Problems With Foxglove
Foxglove is a fairly easy plant to grow, but a couple of common problems are worth mentioning:
Foxglove Plant Has No Flower Spikes
While most nursery plants are grown so they are ready to flower in your garden, it's possible that you have purchased plants that are still in their first year of growth. If your plant produces just a basal rosette of leaves but no flower spikes, leave it in place until the next year; there's a good chance that it will flower robustly in its second year of growth. This is also the normal pattern for seeds planted directly in the garden—they don't flower until their second year of growth.
Less commonly, a biennial foxglove that has already flowered will persist over winter and come back in a weak form for a third year. These third-year plants almost never flower and should be pulled up and discarded. Remember, though, that this is true only of biennial varieties. There are some true perennial foxglove species that should be left in place year after year.
Plants Look Shabby as Summer Progresses
It's fairly normal for foxgloves to begin to look unkempt as the heat of summer arrives. The flower stalks, especially, can look quite shabby. At this point, you can clip off the flower stalks down to the basal rosette (saving the seeds, if you wish). With the flower stalks removed, you may stimulate the plant into producing a second flush of flowers, which often appears as the weather cools in early fall.
Or, you can simply pull the entire plant from the ground once flowering is complete. Make sure, though, to remove only the second-year plants that have completed their flowering cycle. You don't want to pull out first-year seedlings, as these need to overwinter in order to reach their second-year blooming cycle.
Uses and Benefits of Foxglove Flowers
The foxglove — including the flowers, roots, stem, and leaves — is extremely poisonous to humans, dogs, cats, and horses. Despite the plant’s toxicity, it’s used to manufacture a drug known as digoxin. When used as a prescription medication, digoxin helps the heart muscle work more efficiently.
Though it’s not safe to self-medicate with foxglove (in fact, it’s so toxic that it can be fatal if ingested) the medicinal properties of the plant have been known for hundreds of years. In 1785, William Withering, an English doctor published “An Account of the Foxglove.” The book describes the many medicinal uses of foxglove, including for heart ailments, epilepsy, edema, ovarian dropsy, and tuberculosis.
Due to its toxic nature, foxglove is not safe for any culinary uses. However, it’s long been used in folk medicine to treat ailments such as:
Stimulate urine flow
Diuretic to benefit kidney function
Foxglove’s toxicity means that it’s deer- and rabbit resistant. However, its tubular blooms do attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies.