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Foxgloves

Native flowers’ dreaming spires

Pale apricot foxglove
Pale apricot foxglove – sadly, this one didn’t self-seed everywhere

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.

Beautiful but poisonous - foxgloves
Beautiful but poisonous – foxgloves

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.

Group self-sown foxgloves
Group of self-sown foxgloves

Foxgloves really come into the 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, 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-logoPotted guide: foxgloves from seed

As well as the self-seeding native types, I’ve grown two other from seed this year, Candy Mountain (upward-facing rose-pink blooms, 90-140cm) and Summer King (called the strawberry foxglove, compact at 75cm).

Foxglove Summer King
Foxglove Summer King, late March 2016
  • 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

Blue Echium pininana with white foxglove
Blue Echium pininana with white foxglove and attendant bee

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.

Speckled throats of a pink foxglove
Speckled throats of a pink foxglove

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’, afterward, ‘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.


Illuminating Chelsea-winning hybrid

Foxglove Illumination Pink
Foxglove Illumination Pink

If you prefer something showier, 2012’s Chelsea Flower Show-winning best new plant was the foxglove Illumination Pink.

It’s a hybrid created by Thompson & Morgan between our native foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, and Isoplexis, normally found in the Canary Islands. This latter genus was classified by botanists as separate from Digitalis, and that the two would not make a successful cross.

However, Charles Valin, T&M’s plant breeder, tried the cross in 2006 and was successful. The resulting intergeneric hybrid combines the purple shades of our native foxgloves with the warm orange colours and jagged petals of Isoplexis.

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). Foxglove Illumination Pink is available online at http://bit.ly/1acGw4y.


Foxglove plug plants

Foxglove Dalmation Mixed
Foxglove Dalmatian Mixed – a bit of a size difference there, chaps

There’s also a group of Dalmatian Mixed plug plants lurking around, bought in a bargain bundle – £1.99 for 36 (not all foxgloves, obviously).

If you can’t be bothered to grow from seed, it’s a good way to get your garden primed with self-seeders, to make things even easier in the years to come.