Not only do they thrive in shade, they self-seed, require little care and are attractors of hummingbirds.
I’ll admit it. I’m always on the lookout for plants that flower in the shade. The trees that surround my little northwest-facing clearing grow taller each year, shutting out even more of the sunlight that most flowering plants refuse to bloom without. So it was more or less preordained that I would add foxgloves to my flowerbeds. Add to their slender sun requirements the fact that they self-seed readily, are beloved by bees and hummingbirds, and require little care, and you have a flowering plant that has earned a permanent place in my yard.
Besides, there are few flowers that, to my mind, are lovelier to look upon. Their tall spires are studded with blooms that open serially from bottom to top of the stalk, revealing speckled throats that are part of their irresistibility to pollinators. The tubular flowers come in white, yellow, pink, lavender and red, but since purple is the dominant color, self-sown seedlings from many colored blooms may eventually revert to purple. For that reason you might occasionally want to buy a few new plants, even if your foxgloves are self-seeding nicely.
In my yard, foxgloves begin blooming toward the end of May. New blooms open for weeks; by the time the topmost open, those at the bottom have already formed their seed capsules. The capsules are green at first, gradually turning brown and splitting open. Once that happens, you can collect the seed in an empty envelope by tapping the stems gently. The seeds are tiny but abundant. If you want foxgloves elsewhere and don’t want the bother of starting them inside or transplanting seedlings, just carry that envelope to wherever you want them and sprinkle the ground with its contents. Don’t cover the seeds; they need light to germinate. If you allow foxglove to self-seed, you’ll need to recognize the seedlings. The leaves are soft, downy and furrowed, forming a rosette-shaped clump from which the flower stalk will arise in the plant’s second year. Foxgloves are classified as biennials, although they sometimes last more than two years. I have a couple in my front yard that bloomed last year, but rejuvenated. I’m waiting to see whether they will flower again. Apparently that’s possible. Apparently too foxgloves can be tempted into producing a second flower stalk if you cut back the first after it finishes blooming. Seedlings are easy to transplant once they’ve gained a little size, though you will need to mulch and keep them watered until they take hold. The plants will remind you to water them; the rosettes go limp when they dry out.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FOXGLOVES
• Flower stalks can reach heights of five or six feet. While they may not initially need staking, they may topple as the season progresses. I don’t stake mine, probably out of pure laziness, but also because I like the way the collapsed stalks mark the place where I need to look for new plants.
• Foxgloves grow best in Zones 4-8. In cooler regions they can take full sun, but in hot areas prefer part to full shade. Their soil preferences run to well-drained, acidic soil rich in organic matter. Although the authorities say foxglove is susceptible to crown rot, powdery mildew and leaf spot, despite the humidity here, my foxglove foliage has yet to fall victim to the powdery mildew that bedevils the leaves of my phlox plants.
• Foxgloves should be mulched to keep soil moist. I tuck lots of leaves and straw around mine. Foxglove foliage remains green all winter, and while temperatures in the teens or single digits may make it look defeated, the defeat is temporary. Foliage perks up as temperatures climb. In spring, add a thin layer of compost and more mulch, and your foxgloves will love you.
What's in a Name?
• Foxgloves’ genus name is Digitalis. (Yes, that digitalis, the heart medicine.) All parts of the plant are poisonous, so if you have small children around who are prone to putting foreign objects in their mouths, don’t plant foxgloves.
• The Latin genus name translates to “measuring a finger’s breadth,” a reference to the size of a foxglove flower – just about big enough to fit a fingertip into. (Check for visiting bees before trying this out.)
• According to the University of Arkansas cooperative extension, the common name comes from an old English “foxes glofa,” a reference to a myth that foxes used the blooms to sheathe their paws to sneak into farmers’ poultry yards undetected. Since foxgloves grew on the wooded slopes used by foxes for their dens, maybe that’s understandable, though it would have been a tight fit for even a newborn fox kit to insert a paw into one of those flowers.