Foxglove

Photographs by Sabina Rüber

Digitalis purpurea Suttons Apricot

Suttons Apricot

Digitalis grandiflora

Digitalis grandiflora

Digitalis x mertonensis

Digitalis x mertonensis

Foxgloves are remarkably easy, germinating readily, although for the biennials you have to have a little patience as they form a neat rosette of leaves in the first year, waiting until the second to throw up their impressive flower spikes. The botanical name digitalis is derived from the Latin digitus for finger, as the flowers resemble thimbles and fit over the finger like a glove. But the common name foxglove may not have anything to do with foxes (who after all don’t have fingers): a common interpretation of the etymology is that it morphed from ‘folks glove’ – in other words, little folk, or fairies. All parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, causing heart block and even death – but you can’t be poisoned by just touching the flower, or by breathing in the pollen, so it’s perfectly safe to handle the plants or seeds, or indeed cut the blooms to put in a vase, although prudent to wash your hands afterwards. 

The common British foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is utterly beautiful when seen in drifts in dappled shade on the edge of woodland. The white form, D. purpurea ‘Alba’, is more refined, and lovely with ferns, anemones and other plants that enjoy light shade. Two pale yellow foxgloves have caught my attention recently: the pretty D. lutea, and its cousin D. grandiflora, both of which have lovely buttery yellow flowers. Although D. lutea is itself a tall plant, the flowers are smaller and more delicate than D. grandiflora, with a slim, tapering profile, while D. grandiflora creates a stronger impact, its pale yellow flowers speckled inside with golden brown. Both are native to southern Europe, so will tolerate more sun than the British D. purpurea, and both are reliably perennial, coming back to flower for several years before dying back. They look fabulous with almost anything, from orange geums to purple salvias. Some of the hybrid foxgloves have brought in some fabulous colours, including the strawberries and cream pink of D. x mertonensis, a cross between D. grandiflora and D. purpurea, and the exquisite peachy-pink of ‘Sutton’s Apricot’. 

Many foxgloves are biennials, flowering in their second year, and it’s best to sow these in May or June, to plant out either in autumn or early spring. Most need a position in dappled shade, in a good humus-rich soil, but the yellow foxgloves mentioned above will tolerate a sunnier spot. The seed germinates best if sown fresh, so if you are collecting your own seed after the plants have flowered in summer, sow immediately onto good seed compost in a seed tray. You can also sow seed in early spring. The seeds are tiny and need light to germinate, so gently press them onto the surface of the compost and water from below. They don’t need much heat to germinate, so if you’re sowing them in summer, you can leave them in a greenhouse or cold frame until they have sprouted, pricking out the seedlings when they are large enough to handle. If you’re sowing in late winter or early spring when the weather is colder, germinate them under cover at 15-18C, and plant out as soon as the soil warms up in late spring. 

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