Foxgloves: they will make your heart beat faster

The graceful foxgloves are an interesting choice for a shade border. Here are the pros and cons for growing them.

Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, are ornamental plants hardy in zone 4-9. Typically biennials, they form a basal rosette of leaves the first year and will send long floral stems the second year. The late Spring and early Summer tubular flowers have a hairy and mottled heart delicately bent towards the ground.

In some cases, if the stems are pruned and not allowed to go to seeds, foxgloves may offer a second flowering at the end of the Summer.

There are also few short-lived perennial varieties. For instance, I have a yellow selection of Digitalis grandiflora that has lived for 4 years in my mixed-border. After 3 years however, you may want to think of replacing the plants.

Foxglove - Digitalis grandiflora

In the garden, foxgloves add color, drama, and vertical interest. They need a rich organic, well-drained soil and will easily tolerate semi-shade or almost shade. They are perfect in the back of a mixed-border or on their own mixed with hostas. And they add drama to any flower arrangement, as they have a long vase life if cut when individual flowers are not completely open.

Pros & cons

  • Foxgloves are easy-to-find at the garden center. Check however if the variety is biennial or perennial. If biennial, do not expect a small plant to bloom the first year.
  • Foxgloves’ seeds are inexpensive and easy to sow. You may sow directly in the border after last frost or indoor 6 weeks before the last frost. I sow one or two seeds in a small cell in a light media or fine soil. Avoid covering the seeds with more than a sprinkle as light is essential for their germination and then water regularly. Transplant outdoor after acclimating a few days and when the seedling has 2-3 basal leaves.
  • Foxgloves are self-seeding which, in general, is a good thing. That means that the plantlets from seeds should bloom the next year. However it is better to distance them and transplant them one by one at their appropriate spot. In some instances, foxgloves may become invasive in the roots of neighboring perennials, lawns and even woodlands; weeding them during the summer becomes primordial.
  • All parts of Digitalis are toxic to humans and animals. The plant contains digitoxin, a compound that affects the heartbeats. Before being substituted by a chemical equivalent, the natural digitoxin was used in medicine in very small and measured quantity. Therefore, you may want to consider this when and where you plant them. Pets usually do not chew on the leaves because the taste is sour and their texture is coarse. However, stay prudent if you plan to use them as cut flowers as the individual flowers tend to fall while fading. Avoid using the arrangement in the kitchen or dining area without caution, or if your pet munches on flowers. And think about potential problems before including some floral stems in a bouquet you want to sell or give away.
  • Different varieties are available in an array of mixed pastels or of single colors. The latter tend to be more expensive and may be bought at specialty flower farms. Their seedlings may not be identical to the parents’ plants.
  • Foxgloves are nectar-producing. Bumblebees and even hummingbirds are common pollinators. It is not toxic for them.

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