Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea is a biennial plant native to western and southern Europe. Biennial means that the plant takes two years to mature and set seed, and after that it dies. The first year, it produces a low rosette of leaves that gives no hint of the spectacular show that awaits in its second season. The second season, foxgloves produce a tall stalk of gorgeous flowers. The flowers hang in clusters and have an attractive bell shape. They can be purple, pink or white and have a pleasing appearance with spotted throats. Most people would hesitate to plant something that takes two years to mature, however, foxgloves are great reseeders and after a few years, new seedlings take the place of the older plants and occasionally, one or two plants will live longer than the two years that biennials are known for. They make for a lovely addition to a cottage garden and fill the space in the back of the border with the height and color this area needs to balance the space. The seeds are easy to collect so you can sow them in other areas of your garden or trade them with friends.

Foxglove history and lore

These plants have an interesting history and several unique legends are associated with them. It seems that the faeries made friends with the foxes and decided that they needed help raiding the farmer's poultry flocks, so they told them to slip the bell-like flowers over their paws and then the hens wouldn't be able to hear them sneaking up to catch them. Foxgloves are said to be beloved by the fae people and when you see the flower stalks moving and bobbing when there is no wind, the flowers are bowing down to the faeries in respect. It was also believed that if you want to attract faeries to your garden, be sure to plant foxgloves, however do not cut the blossoms and bring them indoors because the cut stems attract evil spirits. It thrives on hillsides, forest edges and in disturbed, rocky, acidic soil. These areas were often said to be where the fairy-folk lived. Other legends tell us that faeries used the blooms for hats and caps and that if you carry the blooms in your pockets, faeries will surround you. Scandinavian lore tells us if a woman wants to conceive a child without the help of a man, she should brush the flowers over her abdomen. The flowers were also said to be able to raise the dead and kill the living, undoubtedly referring to the toxicity of the plant.

foxgloves growing in field

Foxglove toxicity

There is no doubt that digitalis is toxic. Even rabbits and deer avoid them. The plant, leaves, roots, sap and flowers are all powerful poison. There are even reports of children drinking water where the cut flowers were placed in a vase and dying, so it isn't a plant to handle foolishly. If you have small children or pets that tend to nibble on outdoor plants, you might not want to grow foxgloves. Always handle foxgloves with garden gloves and if you burn garden debris, do not add the dead stems to the fire. Inhaling the smoke can be deadly as well. The flowers are shaped to invite us to slip them over the ends of our fingers, (Digitalis is Latin for fingers) but don't do it. If someone you know has swallowed a piece of foxglove, do not induce vomiting, call the poison control hotline.

The use of foxglove in medicine

This plant was and is, powerful medicine. It was one of the first medications used to treat heart disease as the chemical it contains, changes the heart rate and gives the muscle harder contractions. Herbalists used the above-ground parts to make the compound digoxin and for many years used it to treat congestive heart failure (dropsy), epilepsy and tuberculosis. This is not a plant for the untrained to tinker with. Overdoses cause heart palpitations and hallucinations. Legend has it that the painter Vinnent Van Gogh used it and the odd appearance of many of his paintings were the result of digitalis poisoning. There are still commercial drug companies that use it as an ingredient today, but the compound is carefully measured and monitored to make sure that the dosing is standardized.

Grow foxglove in your garden

Growing foxglove is easy. They ask for very little. Plant them in growing zones 4-10, giving them some afternoon shade in the southern parts of their range. The hotter the summers, the more shade your foxgloves need. They like acid, well-drained soil and plenty of moisture. Remember that they won't bloom their first year, but send up their flower stalks the second. Some gardeners claim to be able to keep foxgloves alive for a third year by not allowing the flowers to set seed. They deadhead the blossoms to keep seeds from forming, so the plant is forced to bloom a second time. This practice works, but not consistently. It is better to let the plants reseed and begin again. Since the stalks are so tall (sometimes 5 feet) many gardeners stake them to prevent the plants from blowing over in high winds. If you do not want to wait two years for your plants to flower, one year old plants are offered for sale in the spring at many nurseries and big box stores.

Foxgloves make excellent additions to the cottage garden and are a plant with some interesting history. Just remember to use gloves and keep children and pets from sampling them.