Foxglove has striking purple-pink flowers with dark spots on a white patch just inside its long narrow bell-shaped flowers. It grows in woodland clearings and rides as well as more open areas on mainly acidic soils throughout Britain. Foxgloves usually grow in large groups providing dramatic displays in early summer. Foxglove was first formally recorded by William Turner in 1568.1.
Foxglove has over 100 alternative local names2. from fairy fingers and fairy gloves to cow bells and bunny rabbit’s mouths to the rather sinister, dead-man’s fingers or dead-man’s bells, perhaps alluding to its poisonous properties. In Wales juice from the crushed leaves was used as a dye on patterns engraved in stone floors. In modern medicine, the drug digitalin is derived from foxgloves and used for the treatment of some heart diseases.3. But as a wild or garden plant, foxgloves are poisonous.
A striking addition to the garden, foxgloves provide even greater impact if grown in a group, for example in a border, or in a semi-shaded area amongst grasses. If the soil is acidic they will self-seed and reappear each year, whereas on base-rich garden soils plants will need to be added from year to year. Sow seeds in autumn for flowering the following year, or buy nursery-raised plants in early spring. As there are many different varieties of garden foxglove native foxglove is best sourced from specialist wild flower and seed suppliers.
Foxglove provides a great supply of nectar for nectar-feeding insects, especially long-tongued bumble bees such as garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum. The flowers and leaves may attract more than 20 insect herbivores4., including flea beetles that feed off parts of the flower, gall midges that form small growths on the leaves and aphids that feed on the sap which in turn will attract ladybirds. Foxglove is the larval foodplant of the foxglove pug Eupithecia pulchellata, and many common polyphagous moths, including angle shades Phlogophora meticulosa, and it can be a secondary food plant for the rare marsh fritillary butterfly Euphydryas aurinia .5.
Finches and other seed-eating birds will benefit from the thousands of seeds provided by each plant, while robins and wrens will feed on the aphids and caterpillars that live on the plants.
1. Pearman, D. 2017. The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain and Ireland, A compilation of the first records for 1670 species and aggregates, covering Great Britain, Ireland, The Channel Isles and the Isle of Man. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. p 176.
2. Vickery, R. 2019. Vickery’s Folk Flora, An A to Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London. p 272
3. Hooper, M. 1984. Herbs and Medicinal Plants. Kingfisher Books. London. p 118
4. See the Biological Record Centre database
5. Butterfly Conservation page
Page written by Caroline Ware. Compiled by Steve Head