A bit of knowledge with the phone applications that identify plants can be a dangerous thing.

My wife Nancy and I were walking through a friend’s garden recently, discussing improvements she could make for next year, when she told us a sad tale about her foxgloves. She’d seen some in bloom, taken a picture in a Smartphone identification program, and learned from it that they are deadly poisonous.

So she donned gloves and pulled out all of her foxgloves.

Foxglove’s botanical name is Digitalis purpurea, and digitalis is a poison. You may have read about it in old Victorian mysteries, if that’s your sort of thing. Digitalis is a medicine, too, used to treat congestive heart failure and arrhythmia.

Nonetheless, it is safe to grow foxgloves in most ornamental gardens. You’d have to eat foxgloves or go out of your way to rub it on your skin to suffer any serious health problems. And, no its leaves do not look like spinach (many people in those Victorian mysteries harvest foxglove foliage, mistaking it for spinach.)

Foxgloves are a beautiful flowering plant, tall and slender with a line of tubular blossoms, most commonly purple with speckles. We have them throughout our gardens. They do well in part shade, but they will also thrive in full sun. They like slightly acid soil and dislike temperatures above 90 degrees, so they do well in Maine (at least traditionally; with climate change, who knows?).

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The leaves of the digitalis purpurea. The plant puts out a flower spike in its second year. Photo by Tom Atwell

The good news for our friend is that she didn’t pull out all of her foxgloves. She removed the ones that were in bloom. She didn’t recognize the non-blooming foxgloves, which were just ground-hugging clumps of leaves at the time. Later in the fall, the leaves get to be about 6 inches tall.

Common foxgloves are biennials. The seeds drop from the blossoms, stay in the ground over the winter, then sprout plants that produce no flowers in the first year. Those plants survive the subsequent winter and in their second year grow flower spikes between 2 and 5 feet tall. By pulling the blossoming plants, our friend severely reduced, or maybe even eliminated, the foxglove blossoms she should have had in 2024.

I’ve read that if you deadhead the first foxglove blossoms you get, the spikes may produce a second, smaller round of blossoms. But deadheading lessens the likelihood you’ll get seeds for the following year.

Some foxgloves, Digitalis grandiflora, which has yellow flowers, and Digitalis mertonensis, a short-lived but gorgeous hybrid, are true perennials. We haven’t tried the hybrid but have the yellow perennial version in several locations, and it also self-seeds.

Many nurseries sell potted foxgloves in the spring. These are one-year-old plants that will bloom the first year you’ve got them in your garden. It’s less expensive to grow them from seed, although in that case you’ll have to wait for the blooms. You can buy seed or find someone who will let you take seeds from their foxgloves. You may be too late for the latter this year; the best time to collect the seeds is mid to late summer.

Wearing gloves – to avoid the poison – shake the seed capsules into a paper bag. Save them in a cool and dry spot.
Then eight to 10 weeks before the last frost – early to mid-March in southern Maine – plant the seeds in moist potting mix, growing them until you transplant them outdoors.

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Many other flowering plants – annuals, perennials, even some shrubs, as well as biennials – self-seed in the garden. Rudbeckia, echinacea, verbena, dianthus, viburnums and others come up as volunteers in our gardens.

It’s another reason not to cut back all your flowers in the spring.

And remember, if you don’t like where these self-seeding plants pop up, either move or remove them. To move them, slide a shovel carefully under the seedling plants in early spring, about two inches into the soil. Lift the seedlings and carry the shovelful of plants to their new location. Slide them into the shallow spot you’ve already dug in the new, more acceptable location and press the soil firmly so the transplanted plants make contact with the soil.

And then, as always with gardening, patiently wait for the results.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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