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Foxglove (Digitalis)

By Contributor ; Updated September 21, 2017

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Plant Information Type: perennial
Propagation: seeds, divisions in spring
Light: shade, part shade, sun
Flower Color: white, yellow, pink, rose, red, lavender and purple
Height: 2-6 feet
Width: 18 inches
Soil Requirements: acid, moderately rich, average moisture
Zones: 4-10 except Florida
Uses: shady beds and borders, naturalizing in woodland areas and along roadsides.

This large, showy plant is a striking addition to any shade garden. They look best grouped toward the back of a bed, where their blossoms will brighten an otherwise gloomy spot. Flowers in shades of white, yellow, pink, rose, red, lavender and purple grow on spikes that vary in height depending on the variety. Rusty foxglove with its rusty-red flowers is the tallest, growing to about 6 feet, while the little yellow foxglove grows to only two or three feet. Inside each flower is a large white area that is covered with deep burgundy or brown spots. Most varieties bloom the second year after planting from seed.

The individual flowers are about the size and shape of a thimble. In fact, the Latin name digitalis comes from the Latin word digitalis which means finger. This is because the blossoms fit the human finger almost perfectly. A child can hardly resist poking a finger into the blossoms that seem designed for that purpose, but the flowers and leaves are highly toxic, and this plant should not be grown in areas frequented by children. Foxglove is grown commercially as a source of the heart drugs digoxin and digitoxin.

Folklore suggests several origins of the name "foxglove". The plant may have originally been called 'folk's glove' with 'folk' referring to woodland fairies or little people. One interesting story suggests that woodland elves and fairies distributed the plant to foxes to wear as gloves during raids on chicken coops. This helped farmers identify the guilty fox when the chickens disappeared.


The common foxglove (Digitalis pupurea), a biennial, grows 4 to 5 feet tall and has rosy purple or white flowers. It has been bred to provide several unique varieties.

  • 'Shirley' hybrids include many pastel shades.
  • 'Foxy' hybrids grow to three feet and come into blossom so quickly--about five months after seeds are sown in the spring--that it can be grown as an annual.
  • 'Excelsior' is a striking hybrid, with flowers borne on all sides of the spike, rather than on one side as on other foxgloves, and face outward rather than downward.
  • 'Alba' is white to cream in color and lacks the usual spotting.

Other notable species include:

  • Rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea), which is is usually grown as a biennial or a short-lived perennial, is 4 to 6 feet tall with rusty red flowers.
  • Yellow foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora), is a biennial or short-lived perennial that grows 2 to 3 feet tall, and has honey-colored flowers blotched with brown.
  • Merton foxglove (Digitalis X mertonensis), also known as the strawberry foxglove, is a perennial that grows about 3 feet tall, and has large, deep red flowers.

How to Grow
Foxgloves thrive in Zones 4-10 except in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. In temperate climates they prefer light shade, but in hot areas they should be kept in partial to full shade. They do best in moist but well-drained, slightly acid soil.

Plant foxgloves 15 to 18 inches apart. Start foxglove seeds in summer for bloom the next year. Perennial foxgloves can be started by dividing and resetting clumps in early spring or fall, but are more commonly grown from seeds. Sow the seeds in mid- to late spring to get flowers the following summer. In exposed areas, staking may be required for taller varieties. Good mulching is a must. To prevent overcrowding, divide clumps after three or four years of flowering. In areas where the growing season is at least 150 days, foxgloves will self-seed readily, making them an excellent candidate for naturalizing.


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