Those foxgloves in your garden have been around.
Around the world, that is. In Britain, the so-called common or purple foxglove is actually an old wildflower. It was grown in cottage gardens in the Middle Ages, tucked in between the vegetables and herbs.
Other species of Digitalis are native to Europe, northwest Africa, and parts of Asia, where they’ve long been grown for their beauty as well as for medicinal uses.
Dioscorides, a first-century Greek surgeon, is said to have carried foxgloves with him when he traveled with Nero’s army. In the 17th century, herbalist Nicholas Culpepper recommended using the flowers to make a salve for a “Scabby Head.” Today we know foxgloves as a source of digitalin, a drug used to treat heart problems.
Aside from practical applications, foxgloves are simply beautiful. You can start foxglove seeds, which are small and fine, by scattering them over the ground and lightly pressing down on them. Don’t cover them with soil, because they need light to germinate.
Keep the seeds moist until they sprout. In early fall, transplant the seedlings to a permanent location in your garden. They like rich soil and shade to part shade, and they’ll need watering during dry spells. But don’t overdo it, especially when these biennial plants go dormant during the winter. If the ground stay too wet, they may rot, so be sure to give them good drainage.
You’ll get blooms in the second year after planting. Keep the faded flowers cut to encourage repeat blooms, and stake taller varieties if they start to topple over.
If you’d rather start your foxglove seeds indoors, sprinkle them over a growing medium and again, keep them moist but not wet. Harden them off by gradually exposing them to the outdoor weather for a week to 10 days before planting them in the garden.
Foxgloves will usually sow themselves. Just leave some flowers to dry on the plants at the end of the growing season, and the ripened seeds will drop when they’re ready. If you want to plant your foxgloves somewhere else, tap the capsules over a paper bag to collect the dried seeds. You may even want to tie the bag around the flowers, to make sure the seeds don’t open and fall before you can get to them.
Foxgloves seeds that drop naturally may stay dormant for several years, if the growing conditions aren’t quite right, so don’t be surprised if you see seedlings after the parent plants are gone.
Foxgloves, with their tall vertical lines, are lovely when grown against a fence, against a hedge of large shrubs, or at the edge of a woodland. Coral bells, roses, delphiniums, daises, peonies, astilbes, snapdragons, and iris make good companion plants for very tall foxgloves, like ‘Sutton’s Apricot’ or ‘Giant Spotted Foxglove’, which can grow to five or six feet.
Other foxgloves will top out at two to three feet high, making them better companions for low-growing flowers. Try zinnias, phlox, cornflowers, dianthus, petunias, alyssum and lobelias, keeping in mind that some of these plants may need more sun than your foxgloves.