Foxgloves are one of the most distinctive garden plants with their tall spires of tubular flowers evocative of the quintessential cottage garden and childhood summers. They flower in mid-summer and can reach up to 2m, rising from a low-growing circle of simple, lance-shaped leaves. The height of the flowers makes them suited to being planted at the back of a border where they provide a frame for the lower growing plants in front.

Their strong vertical form creates a sense of distance if planted towards the far end of the garden, because they draw the eye away from the more immediate foreground. Dwarf varieties reaching less than half this height make ideal seasonal focal points in other parts of the garden.

Using foxgloves

In a large garden or at the back of a wildflower border, the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a good choice. It bears spikes of pink to purple flowers with deeper maroon spots inside. However, it is not as reliable as the specially bred hybrids which offer more consistent flowers in a wider range of colours. The 'Foxy Group', for example, bear flowers in a beautiful spectrum of pastel colours ranging from creamy white, to pale yellows and deep pinky-red. Another excellent variety is 'Giant Spotted' which has flowers from crimson to white with wonderful deep spotted throats. 'Sutton's Apricot' is also a deservedly popular variety with apricot flowers. If you are looking for a white form to brighten up a shady spot, D. purpurea f. albiflora is a lovely plant with pure, ghostly white flowers. Good foxgloves for a small garden include Digitalis x mertonensis which has larger individual flowers of a lovely raspberry pink and soft greyish-green leaves. It flowers in mid- to late summer, reaching 75cm. The Grecian foxglove, Digitalis lantana throws up spikes if a similar size bearing small blooms that have an unusual creamy-caramel colour with striking, dark brown veins.

Growing guide

Foxgloves like a slightly shady spot and can be left to naturalise in open woodland where they form unusual drifts of colour. As a rule, they are hardy plants and can cope with any soil unless it is very wet or very dry.They are fairly disease resistant, although the leaves may suffer slightly from powdery mildew if the summer is hot and humid.

Foxgloves are biennial which means that plants establish and grow leaves in the first year, then flower and produce seeds in the second. A few foxgloves are perennial, but they aren't reliable and so are best treated as biennials too. The common foxglove freely self-seeds. This means that new seedlings spring up at random all over the garden producing different shifting, untutored patterns of flowers each year. This can look lovely if you have the room in your garden to let the plants roam.

However, if you have a restricted space and you want to keep your foxgloves in one area, cut the flowers down when they are starting to go over and the petals have shrivelled.

Saving seed

Cover the flowerspikes with paper bags (such as the those used by bakers to wrap baggettes) to collect the seeds. When the seedheads have dried, shake them to remove the seed and scatter them where you want them to grow. Seeds for other varieties can be sown from early spring to late summer in a coldframe or directly outside in prepared soil. Self-sown seedlings that occur in other parts of the garden are best transplanted when the leaves are about 10cm long. Make sure the newly moved plants are watered very well to help them establish because they have very fine roots which can be damaged easily.

poisonFoxgloves were once considered as deadly poisonous although recent tests show they're toxic but not deadly - so eating them still isn't recommended.

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