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How to grow foxgloves

How to grow foxgloves

Iconic and romantic, our native thimbles are instantly recognizable – their purple bell tips adorning woodland glades and cottage gardens. And now that new hybrids and different species are appearing on the scene, offering more colors, shapes and sizes, these easy-to-grow biennials and perennials have even more appeal.

What are thimbles?
Foxgloves can be biennials or short-lived perennials and are grown for their tall spikes of tubular flowers. They bloom for several months, usually starting in late spring or early summer. Our two native foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea and D. purpurea f. albiflora, produce pinkish-purple and white flowers respectively, but there are many other species and cultivars to choose from, in a range of pastel or rich colors.

Foxglove is a woodland plant, so prefers mottled to deep shade, in soil rich in organic matter.

It’s worth noting that all thimbles are highly toxic, so you should always wear gloves when handling plants and seeds. For more advice, see our guide to potentially harmful plants.

Choosing Foxgloves for your garden
There are many excellent foxgloves to choose from, growing to different heights and having flowers in a range of colours. So there are options for almost every garden size and style, from traditional cottage borders to shady urban courtyards and everything in between. Check out our garden styles guide for more inspiration.

Loving shade, they are especially valuable as their bold, architectural flower spikes add height and drama without the need for intense or all-day sun. They’re also a useful addition to pet-friendly gardens, as their nectar-rich flowers are a boon to bees.

To browse photos and descriptions of many Foxglove varieties, go to RHS Find a Plant. You can also search by height, flower color, hardiness, plants for pollinators, and more to narrow your choices.

You might also want to visit the National Collection of Digitalis at The Botanic Nursery in Wiltshire.

When choosing which foxgloves to breed, it is worth considering both appearance and location:

The bud sites come in all sizes, from as little as 30 cm (1 foot) to 2 m (8 feet) or more. Larger thimbles should be given a sheltered spot as they may not withstand high winds without additional support. Check plant labels for heights and spreads to ensure the plants you choose are appropriate for your space

Flowers come in shades of purple, pink, yellow, orange, cream and white, in both pastel and bolder hues, so there are thimbles to suit most border color schemes. Some flowers are also speckled to guide pollinators to the nectar inside

Individual flowers vary in size and shape, from large hanging bells to delicate little outward cups. They can be all arranged on just one side (like Digitalis purpurea) or arranged right around the stem (like ‘Purple Carousel’).

Most biennial thimbles are tough enough to withstand our changeable British winters. However, some of the perennial species come from warmer climes and are not entirely hardy, so they need a mild, sheltered location and/or winter protection. The Canary Foxglove (Digitalis canariensis), for example, must be kept frost-free and therefore needs a place in a greenhouse or cool conservatory in winter