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Digitalis purpurea

What a great summer for Digitalis purpurea

If you’ve been out and about over the past few weeks, then you’ll probably have noticed what a great summer it is this year for Digitalis purpurea – that’s the common foxglove in everyday parlance. Is it the combination of a hard winter frost and snow followed by lots of rain and a short heat wave that’s made them so prolific? Whatever the case, the Digitalis purpurea are plentiful this year – and looking stunning!

Group of foxgloves in woodland
Digitalis purpurea growing in margins of Wooler Common

Foxglove (Digitalis) is a genus of about 20 species of herbaceous plants, mostly native to Europe, but also found in parts of Asia and Africa. The most common and widely cultivated species is Digitalis purpurea, also known as common foxglove or purple foxglove.

Appearance and habitat

Digitalis purpurea is a herbaceous biennial that produces a rosette of oval-shaped, hairy leaves in the first year, and a tall spike/spire of tubular flowers in the second year. The flowers are usually purple-pink but can also be white with purple spots or an albino flower with yellow spots. The flowers are attractive to bees and other pollinators, as they provide a rich source of nectar.

Close up photo of a deep purple foxglove
A deep purple Digitalis purpurea
Close up photo of a pink foxglove
A light pink Digitalis purpurea

Foxgloves can grow up to two meters tall and prefer moist but well-drained soil, with partial shade or full sun exposure. They are often found in woodland edges, hedgerows, meadows and gardens, where they can self-seed.

Uses and benefits

Foxgloves have a long history of medicinal use. The leaves and seeds contain a chemical called digitalis, which can be used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure by increasing the strength and regularity of the heartbeat. Digitalis was first isolated from foxglove by the English physician William Withering in the 18th century and is still used today as a prescription drug (e.g. Digoxin/Lanoxin).

Foxgloves are also valued for their ornamental qualities, as they add colour and height to any garden or landscape. They can be grown from seed or bought as young plants from nurseries. They are easy to care for, requiring only occasional deadheading and pruning to prevent unwanted self-seeding.

Risks and precautions

Despite their beauty and usefulness, foxgloves are also highly toxic if ingested by humans or animals. The symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, blurred vision, irregular heartbeat, confusion and even death!

Photo of foxgloves growing in woodland
A swathe of woodland foxgloves

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header image of foxgloves in Thrunton Wood
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