How to grow foxgloves
Iconic and romantic, our native foxgloves are instantly recognisable – their spires of purple bells adorning woodland clearings and cottage gardens. And now, with new hybrids and different species appearing on the scene, offering more colours, shapes and sizes, these easy-to-grow biennials and perennials have even greater appeal.
- Rewardingly easy to grow
- Flowers in late spring and summer
- Prefer dappled shade with rich soil
- Allow to self-seed or sow seeds in spring
- Nectar-rich flowers attract bees
All you need to know
What are foxgloves?
Foxgloves can be biennials or short-lived perennials and are grown for their tall spires of tubular flowers. They bloom for several months, usually from late spring or early summer. Our two native foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea and D. purpurea f. albiflora, produce flowers of pinky-purple or white respectively, but there are many other species and cultivars to choose from, in a range of pastel or bold colours.
Foxgloves are woodland plants, so prefer dappled to deep shade, in soil that is rich in organic matter.
It is worth noting that all foxgloves are highly toxic, so you should always wear gloves when handling plants and seeds. See our guide to potentially harmful plants for more advice.
Choosing foxgloves for your garden
There are many excellent foxgloves to choose from, growing to various heights and with flowers in a choice of colours. So there are options to suit almost any size and style of garden, from traditional cottage borders to shady urban courtyards, and everything in between. See our guide to garden styles for more inspiration.
Being shade-lovers makes them particularly valuable, as their bold, architectural flower spikes bring height and drama without the need for intense or all-day sunshine. They are also useful additions to wildlife-friendly gardens, as their nectar-rich flowers are a boon for bees.
To browse photos and descriptions of many foxglove cultivars, go to RHS Find a Plant. You can also search by height, flower colour, hardiness, Plants for Pollinators and more, to help narrow down your choices.
You may also like to visit the National Collection of Digitalis, at The Botanic Nursery in Wiltshire.
When choosing which foxgloves to grow, it’s worth considering both looks and location:
The flower spikes come in all sizes, from a mere 30cm (1ft) up to 2m (8ft) or more. Taller foxgloves should be given a sheltered spot, as they may not stand up to strong winds without additional support. Check plant labels for heights and spreads, to ensure your chosen plants are suitable for your space
Flowers come in shades of purple, pink, yellow, orange, cream and white, in both pastel and bolder hues, so there are foxgloves to suit most border colour schemes. Some flowers are also speckled, to help lead pollinators to the nectar inside
Individual flowers range in size and shape, from large hanging bells to delicate little outward-facing cups. They can be arranged all on just one side (such as Digitalis purpurea) or spiralled right around the stem (such as ‘Purple Carousel’)
Most biennial foxgloves are hardy enough to withstand our variable UK winters. However, some of the perennial species come from warmer climes and are not fully hardy, so need a mild, sheltered location and/or winter protection. The Canary Island foxglove (Digitalis canariensis), for example, must be kept frost-free, so you’ll need to have space for it in a greenhouse or cool conservatory over winter
Foxgloves are also sold as plug plants, via mail order, for planting in spring or autumn, but the choice of cultivars may be quite limited. For details of how to look after plug plants, see our guide to buying by mail order. If the plants are on the small side in autumn, delay planting in borders until the following spring – instead pot them up for safekeeping from the slugs
Mature plants are widely available in bloom from garden centres, nurseries and flower shows in spring and summer, for immediate planting and instant impact
When to plant foxgloves
Foxgloves are best planted in spring or autumn, when the soil is moist and warm, to encourage new root growth.
If you buy a plant in flower in summer, plant it straight away, and take care to water regularly while it settles in, especially during hot, dry weather.
Autumn planting is not recommended for small young plants, perhaps newly bought as plug plants or recently grown from seed. To reduce winter losses, keep them in their pots in a sheltered spot over winter, out of reach of slugs, then plant into borders in spring.
Biennial foxgloves and some perennial foxgloves will flower the year after planting, if large enough – they spend the first year rooting in, growing leaves and building up strength. They usually send up flower spikes once the rosette of leaves is more than 15–20cm (6–8in) wide.
Where to plant foxgloves
Foxgloves naturally grow in woodlands and glades, so they prefer dappled or light shade. They also like free-draining soil with plenty of added organic matter, similar to the loamy soil found in woodlands, enriched with years of decomposed leaves.
Some perennial species, such as the rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea), can grow in sunnier sites, but they need the rich, moisture-retentive soil detailed above.
Most foxgloves will grow in large containers, adding valuable height to displays. Use loam-based compost and position in a sheltered spot in light shade, and remember to water regularly, especially in summer.
For species that need protection from frost, such as the hairy foxglove (Digitalis ciliata), growing in a container means it is easier to move plants into a greenhouse over winter.
If you have space, it's worth planting in multiples of three or five, to really maximise the impact
How to plant foxgloves
Foxgloves are easy to plant in borders and large containers – just follow our guides below.
With foxgloves in particular, take care to space young plants 30–35cm (12–14in) apart. If they don't have plenty of room to spread out their rosette of leaves, they will often wait as small rosettes until their neighbours have flowered and died, making way for them to flower the following (third) year.
Water newly planted foxgloves regularly for at least the first few months, to help them until their roots have spread out into the soil
Once established, foxgloves growing in soil that is rich in organic matter should only need watering in long dry spells in summer. Wilting large leaves are a good indicator that plants need a good long soak
Foxgloves growing in containers need regular watering throughout the growing season, as the compost will dry out quickly, especially in summer. Aim to keep the compost slightly moist but never waterlogged
Water: collecting, storing and re-using
RHS video guide to watering efficiently
On poor soils, foxgloves benefit from a yearly application of a balanced granular fertiliser, such as Growmore or blood, fish and bone. Follow the instructions on the packet
DeadheadingDeadhead foxgloves as soon as the flowers have finished, removing the whole flower stem at the base. This stops them producing seeds, which conserves their energy. It can also sometimes help biennial foxgloves live and flower for an extra year, and also improves the longevity of perennial foxgloves.
However, deadheading prevents plants setting seed and creating the next generation in the biennial cycle. So if you would like a yearly supply of new young plants, always leave a few flower stems in place to set seed.
The sturdy flower stems don’t generally require staking if the plant is in a sheltered spot, out of strong winds
Plants in exposed sites and tall cultivars with larger blooms benefit from support, to prevent the spikes snapping. Use a bamboo cane and twine, or a wire support with a loop to hold the stem
If growing foxgloves for cut flower arrangements, tying the stem to a support will help to ensure the straight, upright flower spike that is often preferred
If you use foxgloves as a cut flower, arrange the blooms as vertically as possible. If you put them at an angle, the tips naturally straighten, giving you a kink in the stem.
If a flower stem gets blown over but is still intact, a well-placed cane will return it to an upright position, to continue the display
The majority of foxgloves are hardy and cope well with British winters. However, small young plants are best kept in pots in a sheltered spot until spring, when they can be planted in their final flowering position
Some perennial species from warmer climes, such as the Canary Island foxglove (Digitalis canariensis) and hairy foxglove (D. ciliata), won’t usually survive outside over winter, except in very mild, sheltered locations. They are best moved into a frost-free greenhouse, conservatory or porch in autumn – check plant labels or online descriptions for hardiness
Plants growing in containers are more susceptible to frost damage, as their roots are more exposed. So to be on the safe side, move them to sheltered spot over winter and/or wrap the container in fleece or hessian to insulate the roots
Overwintering tender plants: lifting or mulching
RHS guide to hardiness ratings
Caring for older plantsBiennial foxgloves generally die after flowering, so need replacing if you want displays every year. If deadheaded to stop them producing seeds, they will sometime flower again the following year, but it is best to have back-up plants in case they don’t.
Perennial foxgloves are usually short lived, lasting only a few more years than biennials. Keep an eye on the number of flower stems and general vigour, and once a plant shows signs of starting to fade, grow more from seed (see Propagation, below) or buy young replacements.
Some foxgloves are tricky or impossible to grow from seed. Digitalis purpurea cultivars, such as ‘Pam’s Split’, produce very few viable seeds, so collect and sow plenty just in case. The hybrid Digitalis x mertonensis, which usually dies after flowering, doesn’t set any seeds, so you’ll have to buy new plants or commercial seed (produced by crossing D. purpurea with D. grandiflora) to replace it.
You need to sow or plant young biennial foxgloves every year, to ensure you get blooms every year. Otherwise you’ll just see flower spikes in alternate years.
You can also tidy up the plants in early spring, pruning out any winter damage, yellowing leaves and old seedheads at the base.
Foxgloves are usually easy to grow from seed, either bought or saved from your own plants, although some cultivars and hybrids do not produce many viable seeds. Still, seeds are produced in abundance, so if you sow plenty, you will usually have some success. If saving seeds from a cultivar, the offspring may differ from the parents.
Perennial foxgloves can also be grown from off-shoots around the base in spring. The resulting plants will be genetic copies of the parent plant.
It is best to wear gloves when handling foxglove plants and seeds, as they are extremely toxic. See our guide to potentially harmful plants for more advice.
Growing foxgloves from seed
With most foxgloves, if you leave the flower spikes to set seed, they will self-seed readily. In spring you will usually find lots of little seedlings near the parent plant.
Foxgloves need plenty of space to grow and flower, so overcrowded seedlings should be spaced out or moved once they are large enough to handle. Carefully dig them up with a trowel, with all their roots, and replant 30–35cm (12–14in) apart in the same area. Alternatively, pot them up to grow on, out of reach of slugs, then plant in a new location once they are sturdy young plants.
You can also sow bought or collected seeds in late spring/early summer – see our guide to sowing seeds below.
With foxgloves in particular:
Scatter the tiny seeds thinly into a tray of moist seed or cuttings compost
Press the seeds gently down to make good contact with the surface
Foxglove seeds need light to germinate, so don’t be tempted to cover them with compost
Keep them outdoors in a sheltered spot, or in an unheated greenhouse or coldframe, at 10–15°C (50–60°F)
They should germinate in two to three weeks
Growing foxgloves from off-shoots and basal cuttings
With mature perennial foxgloves, you can grow new plants from basal cuttings or side-shoots that appear around the outside of the central rosette in early spring:
Look for off-shoots or strong young shoots growing from the outside of an established plant
Carefully dig up the parent plant, taking care not to damage it
Check that the off-shoots have roots and can be removed without damaging the parent plant
Using a sharp, clean knife, cut off your selected side-shoots with roots attached
Pot up in a 10cm (4in) pot of compost and re-plant the parent plant
They will be ready for planting once they are growing strongly and roots are showing through the holes in the base of the pot
Foxgloves are generally low maintenance and suffer few problems. Still, it is worth looking out for the following:
Aphids can colonise developing flowers spikes – they can usually be washed off with a hose, but be careful not to damage the stem
Slugs and snails are fond of foxglove seedlings, so put protection in place if possible, or keep in pots until plants are more robust. As seedlings grow, their leaves get hairier and less attractive to slugs
Leaf and bud eelworms can damage the leaves, but can easily be confused with weather damage or fungal leaf spots
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that can affect the leaves, but plants usually recover without treatment
Mutated flowers – foxgloves very occasionally display a fascinating and spectacular floral mutation called terminal peloria, where the top flower opens out fully, looking like a pretty satellite dish. It is either caused by genetic disruption in the young plant, from erratic weather or physical damage, or inherited from affected parent plants. Seed is available under the name Digitalis purpurea ‘Monstrosa’. For more details of this interesting phenomenon, see Kew’s guide to peloric foxgloves
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