One of my favorite cottage garden flowers are foxgloves. I am especially attracted to the purple ones which grow wild on the West Coast. I have grown white ones, which were beloved by Gertrude Jekyll, a popular British garden designer in the early 20th century, but I always go back to the purple ones. The white blossoms also look lovely in a Moon Garden.
Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are biennial plants that are native to Western Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa. Occasionally some plants last longer than two years, becoming short-lived perennials. Here in the US, they are hardy in zones 4 through 8.
The first year, the plants grow a rosette of leaves. The real drama happens the second year when they send up a stalk that can be 3 to 4 feet tall. The flowers, which are tubular, dangle from the stalks for up to four weeks in the late spring or early summer depending on where you live. They range in color from purple to white to pink to yellow with spots inside that are said to act as a “runway” for bees to guide them in to pollinate the flowers. The flowers are also popular with hummingbirds. The plants bloom starting from the bottom of the stem to the top.
After the flowers fade, they are replaced with seedpods which drop the fine seed in the garden during the summer. Foxgloves will readily reseed themselves in your garden. If you do not wish your plants to reseed, simply remove the seed pods before they ripen and drop their seeds.
All parts of the foxglove, including the flowers, leaves, stems, roots and seeds are poisonous to humans and animals. They contain the chemicals digitoxin, digloxin, and digitalin. All three are used to treat cardiac ailments. The difference in dosage between therapeutic and death is very small. Use gloves when handling the plants and keep children and pets away from them.
Foxgloves are easy to grow. They prefer partial shade but will also grow in full sun. The plants like the soil to be moist but not saturated. If the soil gets too wet and stays wet, the plants will develop crown rot. Crown rot is a fungal disease that leads to the death of the plant. The leaves turn yellow, eventually dissolving into the soil. If you see this on any of your perennials, remove the affected plants immediately so that the disease does not spread to the rest of your garden.
The best moisture level for foxglove is one inch of rain per week. If you are having a dry summer with little rain, provide supplemental watering when the top two inches of soil dries out. Drip irrigation is best. If you must water with a hose, try to water close to the soil rather from overhead. A watering wand which has a long handle is helpful. Sprinklers should not be used.
Foxgloves do not require fertilizing. Applying a layer of compost each spring is sufficient. Once that is watered in, add a thick layer of mulch, about 2 inches, around the plants. Make sure that the mulch does not touch the plants. That would encourage insect infestation and disease. A thick layer of mulch will help keep the soil moist and prevent weeds from growing.
Foxglove should be divided in the fall. Using a garden fork, carefully dig up a clump of plants. Cut away any dead or diseased leaves and roots. Gently pull the clump apart into several pieces. Make sure that each division has both foliage and roots. Replant the divisions at least 12 inches apart. The plants will bloom the following spring.
Foxgloves will readily self-sow in your garden, creating new plants each year. You can also start seeds yourself. The easiest way is to direct sow them in your garden after your last frost where you want them to grow. Surface sow the seeds. Don’t cover them. They need light to germinate. Keep the area moist. Once the soil reaches 60⁰F to 65⁰F, germination should occur in 2 to 3 weeks. Thin your seedlings to 12 inches apart. The plants will blossom the following year.
You can also start seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost. Surface sow the seeds in a container. Don't cover them because they need light to germinate. Keep the soil moist. Using a heat mat, keep the soil at a constant 60⁰F to 65⁰F. Germination should occur in 2 to 3 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings into your garden after your last frost. Space them 12 inches apart. They will flower the next year.
© 2019 Caren White
RTalloni on May 21, 2019:
Viva hardy, long-lasting, reseeding flower plants! Thanks for a close look at the foliage of this pretty flower.
Caren White (author) on May 21, 2019:
As also noted in my article, occasionally foxgloves live beyond 2 years, especially in areas with very mild winters.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on April 26, 2019:
Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I love growing foxgloves, they've always intrigued me since I was a child, especially the little dots that show the bees the way to go.
Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on April 25, 2019:
What a great article well written and well organized.
I love foxglove, and it's a good thing that I do because they have taken over one-half acre of my yard. Many attain heights of 6 feet or more. I am curious about one point in your article, however. You mention dividing the plants I thought that they were biennials (growing for just 2 years).
Audrey Howitt from California on April 24, 2019:
I love foxgloves, but we have pets and young children about and so I don't grow them anymore--