Foxgloves (Digitalis) are popular in cottage garden planting schemes, loved for their spires of bell-shaped, bee-friendly tubular flowers. Most foxgloves are biennial, meaning they put on root and foliage growth in year one, and then flower and set seed in year two, before dying. However, some varieties of foxglove are short-lived perennials.
Digitalis purpurea is native to areas of western Europe, including the UK. Its purple, or occasionally white, bell flowers with spotted throats are a familiar sight in woodland clearings, heathland and gardens where they bloom from June to September. Digitalis purpurea is a valuable plant for wildlife. Long-tongued bumblebees feed from the flowers and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of several moth species.
Bear in mind that all parts of foxgloves are poisonous, and can kill an adult human if any part of the plant is ingested. You may want to avoid growing them if you have pets or young children.
How to grow foxgloves
Grow foxgloves in moist but well-drained soil in full sun to full shade – some varieties are more shade tolerant than others. Deadhead spent blooms after flowering to encourage a second flush or let them self-seed over the garden. Biennial types can be dug up after they have set seed but perennial foxgloves should be cut back for autumn, ready to bloom again the following year.
More on growing foxgloves:
Find more detailed advice on growing foxgloves, below.
Where to plant foxgloves
Most foxgloves thrive in dappled shade. However some species, such as Digitalis parviflora and Digitalis obscura, require full sun to grow well. Foxgloves will grow in any soil type but do best in a well-drained, moist soil. Avoid planting foxgloves in very wet or very dry soil.
As Digitalis purpurea is biennial, you might not get flowers the same year you plant the plants. What’s more, if you want your foxgloves to self-seed around the garden and flower every year, you will need to plant foxgloves two years in a row.
How to identify foxglove leaves
The leaves of Digitalis purpurea are green and softly hairy with bluntly-toothed margins. They are oval-shaped and 15-30cm long. In the first year, foxgloves produce a basal rosette of leaves, and a tall flower spike emerges in the second year with smaller stem leaves.
Foxglove leaves could be confused with the foliage of several other species including comfrey, great mullein, green alkanet, borage or ploughman’s-spikenard. Distinguishing between these plants can be difficult but becomes easier once they begin to flower.
How to plant foxgloves
Plant foxgloves in spring or autumn, directly into the garden. Foxgloves can also be planted in large, sturdy containers in loam-based compost. Water in well and continue to water foxgloves in pots regularly, especially in hot weather.
Many foxgloves self-seed around the garden and seedlings often appear near the parent plant. These can be transplanted to other areas where they have more space to develop, or they can be potted up so you can ensure they are watered regularly and they have better protection from slugs while you grow them on.
Watch Monty Don demonstrate how to plant foxgloves, in this clip from Gardeners’ World:
How to grow foxgloves from seed
All you need to do to ensure foxgloves disperse their seed is to avoid deadheading the flowers until seeds have developed and ripened. You can then collect fresh seed and scatter it directly where you want foxgloves to grow. Alternatively, sow seed finely in a tray of seed compost – don’t cover the seed but instead place a propagator lid or sheet of glass over the tray. Seedlings grown in trays should be overwintered in a cold frame, before planting out in spring.
As foxgloves are extremely toxic, you should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling seeds or any other part of the plant, or wear gloves. Keep plants and seeds away from small children and make sure older children can identify and know about the dangers of ingesting foxgloves.
When do foxgloves flower?
Perennial foxgloves, such as Digitalis parviflora and Digitalis lanata, flower every year for several years, but biennial species only flower in their second year before setting seed and dying. Most foxgloves flower in late spring and summer.
How to care for foxgloves
Foxgloves require very little care, and will flower and seed without any intervention from the gardener.
Watch three golden rules of caring for foxgloves, in our video:
By midsummer, foxgloves have finished flowering and can look unsightly. Here, Monty Don explains how to clear your borders of foxgloves to make room for other plants:
Pests and diseases
Foxgloves are trouble-free plants. You may need to protect young plants from slugs and snails. While caterpillars do sometimes eat foxglove leaves and flowers, these provide food for baby birds in spring, so it’s best to leave them be.
- Ensure you check the requirements of the foxgloves you choose. Most require dappled shade, but some grow best in full sun
- Most foxgloves are biennials, so plan for them to flower in their second year
- Always check plants for signs of damage or disease before planting
Where to buy foxgloves online
Foxglove varieties to grow
Digitalis purpurea – the native foxglove. Tall spires of pink dark pink flowers in June and July. Height 2m.
Digitalis purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’ – an extremely pretty variety with apricot/pink flowers. Height 1.5m.
Digitalis lutea – pale yellow flowers in June and July. A perennial that reaches 60cm in height.
Digitalis purpurea ‘Excelsior Group’ – biennial plants that offer white, pink or mauve flowers. Height 2m.
Digitalis parviflora – small, brown flowers that are tightly packed onto the flower spike. A perennial that flowers from May to July. Height 60cm.
Digitalis grandiflora – perennial foxglove with large, warm-yellow flowers. Height 80cm.
Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’ – a fairly new plant with pure white flowers with a deep maroon marked centre. Flowers from May to July. Height 1.5m.