How to grow foxgloves

Val Bourne / 04 January 2016 ( 25 January 2017 )

Gardening expert Val Bourne explains how to grow foxgloves, a striking wildflower that's suited to shady gardens.



Our native foxglove is Digitalis purpurea and the typical form is a biennial, forming a rosette in the first year and a flowering spike in the second. Usually the flowers are pink and the leaves are a crinkled grey-green. The rosettes can make attractive winter features.

The name comes from finger, or digit, because the flowers can look like thimble-like and there are lots of common names such as Goblin’s glove or Fairy fingers.

The name 'foxglove' is said to derive form a Norwegian musical instrument, shaped like a stick of bells, rather similar to a Morris man’s jingling stick, but the root of the name does cause some confusion.

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When to plant foxgloves

Digitalis purpurea is generally a biennial and seeds should be sown once the seeds are ripe, usually in early August, or you can sow foxglove seeds in March.

Plant young foxglove plants outdoors in autumn, if possible. If they are not large enough keep them in their pots and plant out in spring.

Read our tips for getting started with British wildflowers

How to plant foxgloves

Growing foxgloves from seed

When planting foxgloves use a good quality seed compost.

Lightly press the seeds into the compost, but DO NOT cover the seeds because foxgloves require light for germination.

Water with tap water after sowing and allow the pot to drain.

Once the seeds germinate, prick the foxglove seedlings out into small 9cm (3 in) pots.

Planting foxgloves outside

Plant in the ground in autumn, or wait until the following spring if they aren't large enough. Allow plenty of space between plants as if they are overcrowded they will not grow as tall as they could otherwise be.

Foxgloves and dahlias in a garden border

Where to plant foxgloves

Foxgloves prefer light shade and in the wild are usually seen in wooded areas. Their tall flowering height make them a good addition to a cottage garden border.

Find out how to design and plant a cottage garden

When foxgloves bloom

Foxgloves bloom in mid-summer. They usually have pink or purple flowers but garden varieites also come in yellow, white and rusty orange. 

Wildlife

Foxgloves are extremely popular with bumble bees.

Find out about planting to attract bees

Good Digitalis purpurea varieties

Digitalis purpurea ‘Sutton’s Apricot’
Extremely good with blue flowers and in dappled shade.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Pam’s Choice’
White flowers heavily marked in maroon.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Elsie Kelsey’
White flowers with raspberry-jam middles.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’
A pure-white form.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Primrose Carousel’
A primrose-yellow form with light spotting.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Excelsior Hybrids’
Traditional mix of pinks, but much taller than many.

Digitalis purpurea ‘Camelot’
An annual foxglove that can be sown early in the year and flower in the first year. The trade-off is that they are upright, with regularly spaced flowers right round the spike, on shorter plants. ( up to 3 ft)

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Foxgloves

Perennial foxgloves clockwise from top right: Rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea), Straw foxglove (Digitalis lutea), Large foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora)

Perennial foxgloves 

While our native foxglove Digitalis purpurea is a hardy biennial there are other herbaceous perennial varieties that can be grown from seed. 

Perennial foxgloves to grow from seed

Straw or yellow foxglove (Digitalis lutea)
A willowy foxglove that is long-lived with green foliage and small yellow flowers. Tolerates damp places and the backs of borders. Self seeds.

Big-flowered foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora)
Pale-yellow wide-necked thimbles and soft grey-green foliage. Needs good drainage. Even then it will go after a wet winter.

Rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea)
Reddish-yellow flowers in long slender spikes, each one lipped and slightly hairy.

Milk chocolate foxglove (Digitalis parviflora)
Tightly packed small rust-brown flowers. Makes a good winter seedhead, living up to its common name of Milk chocolate foxglove.

Half-hardy perennial foxgloves

The award-winning Illumination series, bred by Charles Valin of Thompson & Morgan, is a sterile foxglove which flowers for many months. It is not, however, hardy. Grow it a container and take it in every winter.

Did you know…?

Foxgloves have been used medicinally as a cure for heart problems and dropsy, a serious disease of the 18th century.

William Withering, a doctor from Wellington in Shropshire, wrote An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses: with Practical Remarks on Dropsy, and Other Diseases in 1785. He obtained his information from a gypsy herbalist who had successfully treated patients with dropsy - a lung condition that normally killed the patient. Digitalis emptied the lungs of fluid. 

Withering became incredibly wealthy, was sponsored by Charles Darwin, and has foxgloves on his grave at Edgbaston Old Church in Birmingham.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.