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Foxglove offers a spectacular display

  • Julie Monson

    I know summer is around the corner when the flowering stalks of foxglove pop up around the garden, providing vertical accents of purple, pink and white amid shrubs and perennials. I've never deliberately planted foxglove, and when we first moved to West Marin I thought it was a native that had decided to invade my garden. It's certainly not a native to California, but has naturalized among rural gardens and roads in West Marin.


    Traced to the Mediterranean parts of Europe, foxglove has been blooming in English cottage gardens since the 1400s and was once considered an English native. It's a stunning plant in the right place, generally at the back of a perennial bed or among flowering shrubs. When it volunteers in the wrong place, I find it is easy to transplant to a shady garden area devoted to foxglove, ferns and bleeding heart.
    The largest, most common and available variety of foxglove is Digitalis purpurea, a biennial or short-lived perennial. Its stalks rise from the center of a large-leaved, pale green rosette at the base, growing rapidly to 4 to 8 feet. The flowering segment of abundant bell-shaped individual blossoms can be 15 inches or longer with new blossoms opening at the top. Few flowering perennials provide such a spectacular display in shady gardens. It attracts hummingbirds and butterflies, comes in purple, yellow, white and pastels, especially pink, and is excellent as a cut flower.
    It's not a particularly tidy plant, and can be unpredictable. I've noticed that not all new plants bloom after they have been transplanted. They will the next year. Individual plants of the common foxglove tend to bloom two years only. On the other hand, if you cut the main stem after it has finished blooming, the plant will produce additional flowering stalks or branches, shorter than the original but still a glow of color in the garden.
    Because it self-sows easily, gardeners wishing to control its spread can remove the spent stalks before the small seeds proliferate on the ground. I let mine go, since ours is an informal garden and it's so easy to transplant the seedling foxgloves in spring. Seeds planted in the fall should produce flowering plants by late spring. Some nurseries carry foxglove as a bedding plant.
    The explanation for the name, foxglove, is traced to the legend of the hungry fox who slips the blossoms on his feet to disguise his raid on the henhouse. As likely, the name has evolved from "folks glove," the gloves of fairies. This connection to the netherworld may relate to the "magical" properties of foxglove. While all parts of the plant are toxic, Digitalis, made from the plant's leaves, is a common pharmaceutical used as a heart stimulant. Be cautious when handling foxglove; it may cause dermatitis. Certainly children should not handle it.
    Foxglove thrives in shade in warm, inland climates and prefers some sun along the coast. Very hardy and pest resistant, avoided by deer and rabbits, it is undemanding in the garden, only requiring moderate watering to thrive. It will even tolerate dry soils, but will not grow as large as irrigated plants, nor flower so copiously. Its late spring bloom coincides with flowering ceanothus, salvias and fremontia, and its flowering stalks are attractive mixed with roses and other blooming shrubs. In addition to the common species, Digitalis purpurea (common foxglove), numerous shorter, perennial cultivars in different colors are available, in particular yellow. Digitalis x mertonesis, with spikes to 2 to 3 feet, has attractive coppery rose blooms.
    Foxglove is one of those everyday garden flowers that reminds me of the classic English garden, for it adds color and a dramatic vertical spire that compliments a mix of blooming perennials and annuals. In shady places, few late spring bloomers are as easy to grow and as colorful as common foxglove.