The foxglove, or digitalis, is a quintessential English country cottage garden flower. Thriving in cottage garden and woodland planting schemes, foxgloves are also a great way to add height and structure to a mixed flower border.
Flowering during the height of midsummer these stately plants, often called Fairy fingers and Goblins gloves, come in shades of pink, purple, yellow and orange. Digitalis is native to the UK. However, it is also commonly seen throughout temperate areas of Europe and some parts of North America. The plant’s ability to self-seed means that it returns to your garden year after year unless you physically cut them down and dig them up. This self-seeding habit also allows the plants to spread throughout the garden, attracting scores of helpful pollinators and hummingbirds as they flower.
Our guide to growing foxgloves is designed to teach you everything you need to know about adding this elegant plant to your flower garden.
Stately and elegant, digitalis is a great way to add structure to your flower beds or containers.
Different Varieties of Foxglove
The common foxglove, Digitalis Purpurea can be seen growing naturally in fields, lanes, and hedgerows. For many gardeners, if digitalis appears uninvited in your garden, it is almost certainly the common foxglove moving in.
Digitalis Purpurea is biennial. In its first year the plant forms an attractive rosette, which adds interest to winter gardens. In the plant’s second year the rosette is replaced by the distinctive foxglove flower spike. Digitalis Purpurea has also been cultivated for sale in many garden centers and stores.
The cultivar Suttons Apricot thrives in partial shade, producing attractive blue flowers. Similarly Pam’s Choice is a particularly eye-catching cultivar. During the summer months it produces white flowers with maroon markings.
Another white flowering cultivar is Elsie Kelsey, its distinctive blooms have a rich red center. Primrose Carousel is a truly standout variety. As the name suggests, this particular variety produces primrose yellow flowers with light spotting.
Finally, the Camelot series are digitalis purpurea hybrids. These are annual plants. If sown early enough they flower in the first year. One of the shorter varieties, the Camelot series is also suitable for growing as part of a container garden.
Coming in a range of shades, the distinctive flowers of the foxglove provide extra interest on closer inspection.
While Digitalis Purpurea is the most commonly seen and grown variety there are over 20 known species of digitals. A number of these are obscure varieties or part of botanic gardens, meaning that are not commonly available. However, what is on offer provides you with more than enough choice.
Digitalis Grandiflora is a popular and reliable perennial. Also known as the Big-Flowered Foxglove, this cultivar produces pale yellow flowers with noticeably wide necks above a mass of soft green-grey foliage. Digitalis Grandiflora cultivars do best in well draining soil. Similarly Digitalis Parviflora is a reliable cultivar. Despite being a hardy variety they will struggle to flourish after a particularly wet winter.
Digitalis Ferruginea is a biennial cultivar. Also known as Rusty Foxglove, the plant produces rust-like flowers in red-yellow shades. Like many other biennial cultivars the plant tends to die after setting seed. However, they are easily propagated by seed, meaning that you can enjoy this interesting variety in your garden for many years.
The Milk Chocolate Foxglove, digitalis parviflora produces small, tightly packed rust-brown flowers. During the winter months the flowers give way to a pleasingly attractive seedhead.
You can buy young digitalis plants, ready to plant, from garden or home improvement stores. Alternatively you can grow from seed. This may take longer but allows you to choose from a wider variety of plants and is more affordable. A pack of seeds is also cheaper and provides you with more flowers than simply buying one or two plants.
How to Sow from Seed
Sow your chosen seeds as early in the year as possible.
If you are sowing the seeds outside try to sow by early to mid August. This allows the young plants to establish themselves before the winter temperatures hit.
Plants can also be started in containers and over-wintered undercover in cold frames or a greenhouse. You can plant out plants started undercover in early April, once the soil has warmed and the last frost has passed.
Seeds can be sown in trays or small 4 inch pots aim to sow one seed per pot. These KORAM Seed Starter Trays come with a plastic cover allowing you to maintain the temperature around your seeds and encourage germination. Fill your chosen container with fresh, good quality seed compost.
If you are sowing straight into the flower bed, work the soil over before planting. As you dig the soil, remove any weeds and stones.
Level the soil and dampen before sowing. Seeds stick to damp soil meaning that they are less likely to be disturbed by the wind. Sow as thinly as possible, pressing the seeds into the soil. Clusters of seedlings can be thinned out following germination.
Do not cover the seeds. Foxglove seeds require light to germinate. Water gently with a fine spray. A plastic spray bottle is ideal.
If you are sowing in containers, cover the pots or trays with a plastic lid, or place in a sheltered position such as in a shaded cold frame. The temperature should average 60 to 65 °F. If you have nowhere covered that is cool enough place the trays in a sheltered position in the shadow of the north side of a wall. Avoid placing the trays in a warm or overly bright position.
Seeds sown in the ground can be protected by a cloche, such as the SYITCUN Protective Garden Cloche, or a mini-cold frame. Remember to also protect the seeds from snails and slugs.
You can also sow seeds in January, undercover for planting out later the year. These may flower in the first year. However seeds sown later, from March onwards, are unlikely to flower until the second year.
Keep the soil moist. In ideal conditions, germination occurs within 21 days.
When large enough, thin the seedlings out to a spacing of about 12 inches. As you prick out the clusters, discard any weaker seedlings, allowing only the strongest to remain. If you are growing hybrid varieties, don’t discard all the weaker seedlings. These, if they survive, often produce more interesting colors and stronger seedlings.
Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, pot them on into individual small pots filled with fresh general purpose compost.
Where to Plant a Foxglove
Foxglove flowers are best planted in the fall. Smaller plants can be kept in containers and protected over winter for planting out the following spring once the last frost has passed.
Thriving in mild temperatures and cool climates, the foxglove is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. Gardeners in colder climates can also grow the plants but may need to provide some winter protection.
Regular exposure to temperatures over 90 ºF often causes the plants to wilt. Foxglove growers in the warmest climates should try planting in positions with lots of afternoon shade. This protects the plants from the extremes of the afternoon heat.
A shade loving plant, position digitalis near a wall or at the back of a flower bed. This provides the plant with some afternoon shade, protecting it from the intense heat of the afternoon.
The foxglove prefers positions that are lightly shaded. They also cope in full shade positions but may struggle if planted in full sun. As well as cottage garden and mixed flower borders the plants also do well in forest planting schemes.
Ideally the soil pH should be between 6 to 7.5. Digitalis grows in profiles outside slightly outside this range but the plants will struggle in extreme soil profiles. If you don’t know the condition of your soil, soil test kits are easy to use and readily available.
How to Plant Foxglove
Harden off young plants before planting out. Giving the plants time to acclimatize to their new position also gives you a chance to properly prepare the soil. Digitalis does best in well draining, rich soil.
After selecting your position, dig the soil over breaking up clumps of earth and removing any weeds or large stones. If your soil is particularly clay-like or heavy try working in some organic matter such as compost, leafmould or well rotted manure. This helps to loosen the soil, improving drainage.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole in the soil large enough to comfortably hold the plant’s root ball.
Remove the plant from the container and place in the hole. The top of the plant’s root ball should be level with the surface of the soil.
Carefully backfill the hole with a mix of soil and organic matter. Water well and apply a granular general purpose feed around the plant. A layer of mulch, around 3 inches thick, of garden compost or bark chippings can also be applied to the root area. This helps to suppress weed growth and, as it breaks down, gives the plants a nutritional boost. It also helps the soil retain moisture.
Correctly spacing the plants helps to keep them healthy. It also encourages the plants to reach their full height.
Correctly space the plants if you are planting more than one foxglove. Planting too closely together can cause growth to become stunted. The foxglove can reach up to 6 ft in height if allowed room to flourish. Hybrids are often more compact, reaching up to 5ft in ideal conditions.
Planting in Containers
Select a container large enough to hold the plant. It should also have drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the container with fresh, humus rich soil. If you want a truly low maintenance garden, try planting in a self watering container.
Dig a hole large enough to hold the plant and position so that the root system sits level with the surface of the soil. Carefully backfill the hole and water well.
When growing in containers the foxglove looks particularly effective surrounded by shorter or trailing plants. This form of companion planting is known as the thriller, filler, spiller effect. Taller plants, such as the foxglove or red hot poker provide the thriller element of this planting scheme. Plants such as begonias, calendula, geraniums and petunias serve as fillers while ivy, nasturtium, lobelia or trailing begonias act as the spiller.
Foxglove Care Tips
Once planted digitalis plants are pleasingly low maintenance.
Keep the soil moist. Young plants particularly like consistently moist soil. Older plants may require less water but they still like moist soil.
Don’t overwater. Foxglove plants are prone to crown rot. This is caused by allowing the plants to sit in wet soil.
While you shouldn’t overwater these plants, you should also never allow the soil around the plants to dry out. If you are unsure, water when the top two inches feels dry to the touch. A moisture gauge such as the Gouevn Soil Moisture Meter provides a more accurate means of monitoring the condition of your soil. This enables you to know exactly when to water your flowers.
Apply a granular balanced plant food every spring just as new growth begins to emerge.
Mulching around the plants or applying a top dressing, once a year helps to keep the soil rich and the plants healthy.
Following flowering, deadhead faded flowers and cut stems down to ground level. After pruning apply a dose of balanced, liquid plant food. Applying fertilizer to early flowering varieties helps to encourage a second flowering.
Taller varieties may require some form of support such as a stake or trellis. Stakes are best installed during planting. Gently tie plants to the support, being careful not to damage the stem.
A tall, elegant plant. Taller varieties, especially those in exposed positions, may require some support.
Remove seed heads to prevent plants from spreading abundantly throughout your garden.
Perennial varieties can be cut back with garden scissors after flowering. Apply an organic mulch to protect the rots from winter frosts. Remember to remove any remaining mulch in the spring, once the danger of frosts has passed.
Pruning away the main spike once flowering has finished encourages the plant to put its energy into the surrounding spikes. This results in better flowers next year. Don’t deadhead spent flowers if you want the plants to set seed.
How to Harvest Seeds
Digitalis is a self-seeding plant. However, if you want to control the spread of the plant you will need to harvest the seed.
During the fall the seed heads can be cut from the plant and placed in a paper bag. Gently crush the heads, releasing the seeds.
The seeds can be planted on immediately or kept in a paper envelope in a dry place until you are ready to use. Remember to date and label the envelope. The older seeds are the less viable they become.
Common Pests and Problems
The foxglove is prone to crown rot. This can be caused by overwatering or planting in poorly draining soil. Crown rot can also be caused by poor air circulation, a symptom of planting too closely together.
Crown rot causes foliage to yellow and wilt. It also causes the base of the plant to turn brown and rot. Additionally, white fungal spores may appear at the base of the plant.
Crown rot is difficult to treat unless it is identified very early. Adopting good growing practices such as correctly spacing the plants helps to prevent the disease from taking hold.
Dig up and destroy any plants suffering from crown rot. Do not place affected plants on a compost heap.
Fungus leaf spot causes foliage to develop black, red or brown spots. Often appearing in the spring if left untreated it can cause the plant to die.
Afflicted plants should be dug up and destroyed to prevent the fungus from spreading throughout your garden. To prevent leaf spot, spray healthy plants with a fungicide. Watering only the base of the plant, keeping the foliage as dry as possible, also helps to prevent leaf spot.
Aphids also target foxglove plants. An application of neem oil cures most infestations. Insecticidal soap can also be used. Stubborn infestations may require repeat applications to completely cure the plant.
You will also need to protect plants from snails and slugs.
Elegant and colorful, digitalis is not only a great way to add interest to your garden. The plants also attract pollinators and hummingbirds.
An attractive, stately plant the foxglove is an ideal shade plant. They are also pleasingly easy to care for and look particularly effective when growing in clumps, adding height and structure to a space.
A popular flower in mixed beds and container gardens, foxglove adds summer color to the garden attracting bees, pollinators and hummingbirds.
Elizabeth learnt to love gardening as a child in her grandparents backyard. Today, she is a trained horticulturist and has maintained a productive allotment for over 10 years. When not growing her own, Elizabeth enjoys helping other people with the plant problems. An experienced writer and editor, away from gardening Elizabeth is also a keen bird watcher, local historian and genealogist, meaning that she can often be found with her dogs exploring an overgrown graveyard.