Gardening with Digitalis

Vickie Bodie, owner of Native Spaces in Wiltshire, with her recommendation of the best foxgloves and how to use them in your garden. - 09 May 2022

Foxgloves, or Digitalis, are a versatile and easily grown addition to the garden. They are at home in any garden style from the informal cottage garden, where their tall spires can pierce a billowy cloud of soft hued perennials, to the contemporary garden where they might supply strong verticals in an architectural planting or perhaps, in a Piet Oudolf-style planting form head -high bands of colour and texture when planted through a veil of grasses. Many are highly suitable for pots and can bring a breath of the countryside to collection of pots on a patio or balcony.

Digitalis comprises several species of short lived perennials and biennials which range in their origin from Europe to Central Asia. Our own native Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is perhaps the most familiar. Found on rocky slopes, hedgerows and the woodland edge as well as in gardens it is a biennial which can sometimes persist. This foxglove and its progeny ( such as D. x mertonensis) are happiest in a humus-rich, leaf-mouldy soil; however, they are not fussy and it is not unusual to find foxgloves equally at home tucked into the crevice of a streamside boulder, in the dry shade of a tree or growing in full sun, though often with its roots tucked beneath cooling stones.


Digitalis 'Dalmatian Peach'

Many species are suited to a drier, more open position, such as D. ferruginea, the Rusty Foxglove, a native of S.E Europe, Turkey and Lebanon. This plant, a perennial, is a garden designer's favourite and looks stunning through a film of hazy grasses, such as Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' which echoes its upright form. It is very floriferous and beloved by bees. The individual flowers are packed all around the flower spike and are fascinating when observed closely. The exterior of the flower is a soft apricot colour while the interior is a burnished buttercup yellow netted with fine mahogany coloured lines. Together this creates the' rusty' hue which gives D. ferruginea its common name.Two creamy yellow anthers protrude like comical teeth from the mouth of the flower and the lower lip is downy. The flower stem grows to 1.5m and the slender, slightly leathery leaves, are dark green. It flowers from June to August.


Digitalis ferruginea

Another choice perennial is Digitalis x mertonensis. It arises from a cross between D. purpurea and D. ambigua ( syn. grandiflora) and is known as the Strawberry Foxglove. It is stouter and chunkier than our native foxglove, standing around 60 cm tall. It is excellent for pots, being less likely to blow over in the wind than its taller counterparts, and fills the pot with a generous rosette of broad leaves before the flower forms. Described as being the colour of crushed strawberries, it is really more like the colour of strawberry mousse, the purple hue of its parent D. purpurea being toned down by the creamy yellow hue of its other parent D. ambigua. It will self sow where happy and comes true from seed.


Digitalis x mertonensis

Among the yellow foxgloves two of my favourites are D. lutea and D. ambigua. Preferring a slightly alkaline soil, D. lutea (perennial) will self sow gently through a border where its dainty spires of primrose flowers , which grow along one side of the flower spike, create an elegant backdrop for bolder coloured plants and associates beautifully with roses. Growing to 60 cm this would also make a good choice for a pot. D. ambigua (syn. D. grandiflora) which in its native habitat ( the Alps and Pyrenees) grows in open clearings, has large pure yellow flowers spaced neatly along one side of the stem. The gently flared trumpets, with distinctive pointed edges , open to reveal a paler interior netted with deep garnet red.


Digitalis ambigua

A very unusual form, D. parviflora, the Chocolate Foxglove, has become very popular with gardeners who enjoy plants on the moody side of the colour spectrum. Those who like their tulips dark and dramatic will probably like D. parviflora. Rich brown flowers crowd densely around a sturdy 60 cm stem. Hailing from Spain, this foxglove is happy in a sunny location where its deep colour can be best appreciated.

Foxgloves are easily raised from seed and most species will happily sow themselves around the garden. All need light to germinate and are best sown on top of the compost with a dusting of vermiculite to keep the tiny seeds in place. Traditionally sown in spring to flower the following year, they can be sown at almost any time if conditions are favourable but I have had good results with Autumn sowing which mimics nature's behaviour. A September sowing can give you flowers the following June or July depending on the variety sown. Some seed companies offer very fast maturing foxgloves such as the Dalmatian and Camelot series which can flower in summer from spring sowing.


Digitalis 'Dalmatian White'

In the garden all Digitalis will benefit from a mulch in Autumn, this also provides an hospitable place for seedlings to grow which can subsequently be moved to your preferred flowering position. They are generally trouble free although in extremely dry conditions they may suffer from mildew. Due to the poisonous nature of their leaves and seeds they are generally avoided by deer which is always a bonus! Washing your hands after handling them is recommended.


Digitalis lanata 'Café Creme'

Foxgloves are beloved by bees and make a valuable addition to the wildlife garden. Anyone sitting quietly for a while where foxgloves are growing will notice how the low drowsy hum of the bee changes to a tinny high pitched buzz as it enters the interior of the flower. This is not the sound of excitement! It is the sound of its wings beating against the corolla as it travels from flower to flower becoming ever more dusty with pollen. For this reason among many I would not be without Digitalis in the garden.

Vickie Bodie owns Native Spaces, a nursery specialising in woodland garden plants, particularly species and, of course, Digitalis.