On the Wildside: Foxglove is a very distinctive plant

Our native Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which can be found across Europe.
Our native Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), which can be found across Europe.

The Foxglove must be a familiar plant to anyone with only the slightest interest in wildlife or the countryside, as its bold spikes of vibrant purple flowers are so distinctive and are quite unlike any other native plant.

Open woodland, especially where the ground has been disturbed by tree felling or road and path maintenance is where it grows in greatest abundance. It also often turns up after woodland fires.

It can be found along streams high up into our mountains and may turn up in open areas amongst boulders and on rock ledges. It does not thrive in grassland or where there is a closed community of plants.

Our Foxglove is a biennial plant, that is it takes two years to mature, flower, produce seed and then it will die. In the first season it grows a large leafy rosette of evergreen leaves.

Each plant produces vast amounts of seeds which are simply shaken out of the seed capsules when the tall flowering stems are shaken and blown in the wind. The seeds can lie dormant in the ground for a great many years, when the ground is again disturbed and light reaches the seeds up they will sprout and a new generation will be on its way.

The large tubular flowers are an ideal landing platform for Bumblebees which will disappear up inside the flower to gather its nectar and pollen, at the same time getting its body dusted with pollen which it will then transport to the next plant it visits, so completing the pollination cycle.

It is possible to find the occasional white flowered plant and gardeners have been responsible for selecting and crossing individuals which have heavy spotting inside the flower tube and flowers which are arranged all round the stem rather than all the flowers facing the one way.

The origin of the name Foxglove goes back a very long way and is rather obscure, it may be that it has nothing to do with foxes and could originally have been folk’s gloves.

Our native Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, can be found across western Europe. There are about 20 other species of Foxglove found over Europe and western Asia, most are perennial species with flowers in various shades of yellow and brown.

Some species have dense spikes of many, small narrow tubular flowers, others have relatively few but large flowers, but none with flowers as large as our native purple flowered Foxglove.

In general most of the other species grow in open stony forests and alpine meadows. Many make attractive garden flowers and a number of species are commonly cultivated.

On the Canary Islands and Madeira there are four species which are short lived shrubs, growing to about six feet tall and across. At various times in the past they have been placed in another genus Isoplexis but DNA results place them with Digitalis.