From self-seeding Digitalis purpurea to Canary Island exotic crosses
Of all our native plants, I love foxgloves the most. Even the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is stunning with its pink/purple blotched flower spikes, occasionally throwing up the white version, Digitalis alba.
Although the common foxglove is usually a biennial, there are shrubby and perennial forms.
There are always foxgloves lurking around the perimeters of my garden – self-seeded under the hedge and by the fence, where I’m happy just to remove the ones that become most invasive.
The first year, you get a rosette of basal leaves, followed by a long, leafy stem the second year, which bears the flowers. It then sets seed and dies (or if you’re lucky, might go on).
My investment in a packet of rare and mixed foxglove seeds in 2013 for less than £2 paid dividends. The garden in 2014 was full of a variety of floral spires, reaching from 2ft to more than 6ft. The majority were shades of pink, but there were also white/cream and a beautiful delicate apricot.
Unfortunately, although many self-seeded, or were perennial, the tallest and most unusual colours didn’t reproduce/live, which is a good rule of thumb to judge them by.
Foxgloves really come into their own in late May/early June, at a point where there always seems to be a bit of a lull. The bulbs have finished and early spring bedding like wallflowers and pansies are ragged and past their best.
They’re also shade lovers, so I let them freely self-seed around the hedge boundaries. I like mine best with a combination of cow parsley, another biennial sweet rocket (Hesperis, lilac, and white), chives and alliums (ornamental onions), whose large globular white and purple heads contrast well with the tall foxgloves.
This is a very easy late-spring combination – plant the allium bulbs in autumn and the rest are prolific self-seeders – just pull out what you don’t want – and they’re excellent for pollinators.
Potted guide: foxgloves from seed
As well as the self-seeding native types, I can recommend Candy Mountain (upward-facing rose-pink blooms, 90-140cm) and Summer King (called the strawberry foxglove, compact at 75cm).
- Sow January-May on the surface of a good, free-draining, damp seed compost at a temperature of at 18-29C. Lightly cover the seed with vermiculite.
- Place in a propagator until after germination (usually takes 14-30 days). Do not exclude light.
- Transplant seedlings when large enough to handle into trays or 7.5cm (3in) pots.
- Gradually harden off for a few weeks before planting out after all risk of frost, 45-60cm (18-24in) apart.
Poison, drugs, folklore and Van Gogh
Foxgloves are poisonous, so if you have small children, be aware. Symptoms are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea, jaundiced or yellow and blurred vision.
The plant is used to make the drug digoxin, to regulate an irregular heartbeat.
The scientific name means ‘finger-like’ and refers to the ease with which the flower can be fitted over a fingertip.
Although one theory is that the name goes back to the early 1300s when the ‘folks’ of our ancestors were the fairies and nothing is more likely than that the pretty coloured bells of the plant would be designated ‘folksgloves’, afterwards, ‘foxglove’.
In Wales, it is declared to be a favourite lurking-place of the fairies and in Scotland, it is called ‘bloody fingers’ or ‘deadman’s bells’.
Foxgloves were once used by herbalists to treat epilepsy, now long abandoned because of the difficulty in determining the correct dose.
It’s been suggested that Van Gogh’s ‘Yellow Period’ was due to being prescribed foxgloves to control his seizures, plus ‘haloes’ in Starry Night and multiple self-portraits including the plant.
RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2012 – foxglove Illumination Pink
If you prefer something more showy, 2012’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show-winning Plant of the Year was the foxglove Illumination Pink.
However, Charles Valin, T&M’s plant breeder, tried the cross in 2006 and was successful. It has since been joined by sister plant Ruby Slippers, with spires of open-mouthed blooms in raspberry pink with contrasting apricot lips.
The plants are sterile and will bloom from May to November. The growing habit is also very distinct; multi-branching and compact, plants grow to a height of just 75cm (30in). For more information, visit Thompson & Morgan.
RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019: Digitalis Firebird
Taking second place is Digitalis x valinii Firebird bred in the UK by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants. It has 90cm flowering spikes of warm reddish-pink with apricot tones from May to October.
A reliable perennial, it has a branching habit and is also attractive to pollinators. Read more about the other contenders here.
This pure Canary Island foxglove has tropical looks, a voluptuous sub-shrub shape, profuse flowering, nectar-rich flowers which attract bees, bright colours and drought tolerance.
The plants, up to 1m tall, are shaped like a candelabra, with fiery sunset shade flowers and ruby stems that appear to glow, even when not in flower. To read more on Isoplexis Bella, click here.