Foxgloves – Opera Length

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There are about 22 species of Digitalis, all of them known as foxgloves, but today’s special is D. purpurea, the common foxglove, a weed of the English hedgerows and a weed in its willingness in gardens across the US northern tier. ( The farther south you go, the less delighted they are.)
They’ll bloom for months if kept deadheaded, but are most glorious in early summer, just reaching their maximum 5 or 6 feet as the peonies start declining. And foxgloves can be almost as permanent as peonies, even though they are biennials (or short-lived perennials), because they self-sow so prolifically.
Each flower is good for at least a hundred seeds – usually, there are far more – and a happy plant will produce anywhere from 60 to more than 100 flowers on its roughly 5 to 9 spikes. (The woodland world is not paved with foxgloves for the same reason that the woodland streams are not paved with trout; most of the babies don’t make it. )

As D. purpurea suggests, the species flower is purple ( purple-pink, actually, with maroon spots – scroll down to see). But there is a selection: D. purpurea f. albiflora that is, as ITS name suggests, white, and it does pretty well at staying white through generations of mixed breeding.

Foxglove growing tips:

* Alkaline soil helps, but is not essential. What really counts is good drainage. Foxgloves like a lot of moisture but rot swiftly if roots stay wet.

* Foxgloves are often on lists of shade-bloomers, but that doesn’t mean deep shade. They do best where they get filtered light all day or plenty of morning sun.

* Fertilizer makes large plants gigantic, but also makes them more prone to fungus diseases. Don’t use it in damp years or where the plants are crowded ( which is where they are most charming).

* Because plants bloom in their second year and frequently die at the end of same, you have to plant from seed 2 years running to get a good stand of them going. Not difficult, but seed must be fresh for good results. If you have a friend with foxgloves, just ask them to let a stalk go to seed. If you don’t , buy a blooming-size plant from a garden center and do the same. When most of the seedpods have dried ( those on the bottom will have already split) just cut the stalk and wave it around where you want foxgloves. Seed forms in August or September, and baby plants should be up by the end of the season.

* Foxgloves are shallow rooted and frequently heave out of the soil in winter. But it’s hard to get around that with mulch because the plants spring back to life long before the freeze-thaw cycle is over. They’re also prone to rot in prolonged spring damps. The moral: do not move or thin them until after soil settles and weather warms and you know how many you have.

* The secondary spikes will be stronger if you cut those giant lead ones well before all the flowers open, when about a third are still in bud. It’s painful and I don’t always do it but when I do I just put them in a vase. They keep opening for quite a while, though after 5 or 6 days the purple ones start getting paler and paler.

Nomenclature Department: The dominant explanation seems to be that foxglove is a corruption of folksglove, idea being that the flowers are gloves for faeries but faeries do not like to have you say their name and will retaliate unpleasantly. They must be called “the little folk,” preferably in a soft voice that does not attract their attention.
Pretty story but unlikely to be true, given that the earliest use is Old English foxes glofa, which means just what it sounds like it means. Foxes, like faeries, inhabit the hedgerows where these flowers grow, and foxes have smaller paws than you might think.

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  • Fran Bliss Said,

    I just purchases the foxgoves. We just had a heavy downpour and some are leaning on the ground. Will they stand up again.
    Thank you.

  • leslie Said,

    congrats on getting a lovely new flower.

    Foxglove flower stalks that have fallen over from the weight of rain ( but are not broken) will pick themselves up – but only as far as various languid attitudes. If you want them to stand up straight you’ll have to stake them… and it’s worth giving them that help if they remain close to the ground. Left to lie there, they’ll soon be eaten ragged by slugs and snails.

  • vicky Said,

    ty for this reading. was very interesting, and answered what i needed to know.

  • Mike Waldron Said,

    Last year I planted a bunch of wild flowers back in my garden area they came up great. Being novice gardener I am (my thumb tends to be viragated rather than a deep healthy green) I noticed this year Foxgloves growing in same area, Yay!!! Mom would be proud she always scolds me when I buy annuals….sigh. I digress, so I transplanted them to the front where they have done quite well. I still have a bunch back there that I want to move. But I was thinking about letting that area be my foxglove orphange, some one told me you could split them similar to the way one does Hosta…is this true, if so how is it done. Thank you for your article it was most informative! Happy gardening.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Mike

    welcome, thanks for the kind words and congrats on the bounty of foxgloves. Plants often grow multiple babies in their skirts and these sometimes have enough root to make it on their own. But they do better if you just leave them be to replace the mother when she expires in a year or two. Self-seeded independents will be stronger than split-off transplants and it sounds as though you’ll have plenty. They usually self-thin, too, but it never hurts to give young plants breathing room.

    In other words, you can divide them, but it’s scarcely worth it. And just for the record hostas and foxgloves are pretty much at opposite ends of the tough plant/longevity scale.

  • claire Said,



  • leslie Said,

    Hi Claire

    You’re right, foxgloves are poisonous. So are delphiniums, ivy, tomato leaves and a very great many other common garden plants. As the loving grandmother of someone who puts everything she finds interesting into her 14 month old mouth, I think it’s safer to work on keeping the kids away from the plants than the other way ’round.

  • Keli Said,

    I’m sorry, but I’m grappling whether or not to purchase a foxglove, and that description just made the idea a lot less appealing. Can I just buy a blooming plant, plant it in a sunny area and water it regularly? Will it last for a few years if I do that? (I’d use fertilizer and food and all of that, but how would one describe an area with adequate “drainage”?)

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Keli,

    a lot depends on the species of foxglove you’re thinking about buying. If it’s the D. purpurea described in this post, I’m afraid the answers are pretty much all “no”: Blooming plants resent transplanting; they prefer partial shade; and they really are short lived. And it’s hard to imagine a situation where just one would give the lavish effect that makes them worth having.

    BUT – there are also perennial types that are quite a bit sturdier and willing to stick around. D. lutea, for instance, which has smooth leaves and yellow flowers.

    Soil with good drainage is soil that does not remain soggy for a long time after watering (or rain).

  • Laurie Said,

    Hi I just rescued two of these from the store. One had it’s roots seriously protruding from the top of the pot. That’s the one doing the worst. But my question is I have one that is leaning way down to the ground, worse than when I bought it a week ago. I tried to straighten it this morning but heard a cracking sound and decided to leave it be. I came inside to try and find out about this flower that I didn’t even know what it was and came across your blog and you seem to be very knowledgeable. Is there any way I can make it stand straight?

  • leslie Said,

    welcome, Laurie

    I’m sorry you’re having such an unhappy introduction to foxgloves; easy plants from seed but not alas easy from store-bought plants.

    Yours certainly sound like they needed rescuing, but I’m afraid from your descriptions that it may be too late.

    Roots coming out of the TOP of the pot are a new one on me; the thing must have been crowded out of its brain and the exposed roots are bound to have been dried out or damaged.

    leaning is always a problem even when plants are healthy and in the ground. Staking can usually be done but the cracking sound sounds ominous…

    and then you’re dealing with transplanting blooming foxgloves; never a sure thing even under the best of circumstances.

    If the store is a good one, you might be able to get them to replace the plants – if so, choose healthy rosettes that are not yet blooming. If it’s one of those places that could care less I’m afraid you’re stuck.

    But I hope you won’t be discouraged. Try planting some seed. It takes longer but is more reliable. Be sure it’s dated for this year; foxglove seed is best when fresh and does not store well.

    Good luck!

  • Jessica E. Said,

    I am new to gardening and just purchased some foxgloves for my little garden. They seem to be leaning quite a bit and one was on the ground so I snipped the stalk off in hopes it would bloom back. now the other one I planted is heading the same direction as the one that feel over. Did I make a mistake in cutting the stalk? Should I say goodbye to the one I cut?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Jessica

    Sounds as though you and Laurie may both have been seduced by gorgeously blooming plants in pots that were too small for them. A healthy foxglove with enough leaf and root to support a 2.5 to 3 foot tall spire of flowers would need to be in at least a 10 inch pot and even that would be pushing it.

    Anything smaller and the plant will be weak and stressed; prone to falling over and not too likely to rebloom. BUT, if you left a few growing leaf nodes at the bottom of the stalk you cut, and the plant grows strong now that it’s in the ground, it may rebloom.
    The other one should probably be staked; try propping it up with a forked twig/small branch for a less “staked” appearance. If you let it go to seed you’ll probably have babies by the end of the summer. Leave them in place, then move them next spring to the spots where you want them to bloom.

  • Heidi Said,

    I have a number of flowering foxgloves. When the flower is spent should I cut it or do they flower again within the season?

  • leslie Said,

    welcome, Heidi

    Foxgloves often flower again, but on new spires, not the same stalk. You can tell if yours is likely to rebloom by looking at the base. You’ll see growing tips at lower leaf axils if there are new flower stalks forming.

    Cutting the main flower before it’s completely spent will increase your chances of getting more. But be sure to leave at least one to go to seed so they can establish themselves for future years.

  • Aaron Nunez Said,

    Do they get eaten by snails????????? plz tell me if they do

    Everything gets eaten by snails if the snails are abundant enough, but foxgloves aren’t particularly vulnerable. At least in my experience.

  • Jennifer Said,

    HI! I just bought two foxgloves from Lowes the other day and today one has fallen over after watering it. I put them in a flower bed that has mulch around the plants so my question is..will the mulch prevent them from re-seeding? What can I do about the one that fell over? Stake it?


    Hi Jennifer.

    In answer to your main question, organic mulch prevents seeds that are already there from germinating – or at least from germinating so fast – but it usually breaks down enough over winter to permit growth the following year. Very coarse bark mulch would be an exception. If that’s what you’re using you might want to plant some seeds this fall in open ground, then transplant the babies in spring. Staking the one that fell over sounds like a good idea, though it also sounds as though the plant must have had a pretty paltry root system; watering shouldn’t have toppled it.

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