Quick facts

Common name: foxglove

Scientific name: Digitalis purpurea

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Origin: native

Flowering season: June to September

Habitat: open woodland, hedgerows, moorland

What does foxglove look like?

Foxglove is a well-known plant across the UK, which produces a spike of purple-pink flowers between June and September. It can grow up to 2m tall and is found in heathland, woodland edges and gardens. This pretty flower is also a valuable source of nectar for bees. 

Leaves: oval-shaped and hairy with a toothed margin. The first year plant produces a basal rosette, but older plants show an alternate leaf arrangement on the stem.

Flowers: pink-purple in colour, occasionally white and showing darker coloured spots on the lower lip of the flower. Flowers are tube-shaped and grow on a tall spike. The plant itself can grow up to 2m tall.

Fruit/seeds: a capsule encompassing many seeds, which changes colour from green to black when ripening.

Not to be confused with: common comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Comfrey could be mistaken for foxglove when not in flower, as the leaves are similar. However, comfrey leaves are untoothed, meaning they have smooth edges, and foxglove leaves are toothed. Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is another plant foxglove might be confused with when no flowers are present. However, great mullein leaves are untoothed and are hairier than those of foxglove.

Foxgloves in a field

Credit: Gary Edwardes / naturepl.com

Where to find foxglove

Foxgloves are biennial or perennial and flower from June to September. The species can be found across the UK and grows particularly well in acidic soil. Look out for it on woodland edges, roadside verges, heathland and in gardens and hedgerows.

Garden bumblebee flying to foxglove flower

Credit: Phil Savoie / naturepl.com

Value to wildlife

Foxgloves are an important source of pollen for bees. The species has evolved to be especially attractive to long-tongued bees such as the common carder bee. The brightly coloured flowers and dark spotted lip attracts the bee, while the lower lip of the flower allows the insect to land before climbing up the tube. In doing so, the bee will drop pollen from other foxgloves, allowing the plant to reproduce.

Did you know?

As a plant that is poisonous but also has curative properties, it’s said that foxgloves can both ‘raise the dead and kill the living’.

Mythology and symbolism

The origins of the name foxglove are unclear, but can be traced all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s thought the ‘glove’ part of the name is simply due to the flowers looking like glove fingers. Less certain is the connection to foxes. One theory is that people believed foxes wore the flowers on their paws to silence their movements when hunting. Another is that the flower is often found growing close to the earths where foxes raise their young.

This striking plant has been mentioned in various poems, such as A Nocturnal Reverie by Anne Finch, as well as being the star of poems itself, like the aptly named Foxgloves by Mary Webb.

Uses of foxglove

Foxglove contains a chemical called digitalis that can be used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure by raising blood flow and increasing the body’s defence mechanisms. However, the plant is poisonous if consumed directly, and can cause a number of health problems.

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Foxglove and other poisonous plants

Helen Keating  •  20 Feb 2019

A quick guide to five of the most poisonous plants you may encounter on a countryside walk in the UK. Learn how to recognise them and get fascinating facts on their toxicity.

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Did you know?

Other names for foxglove include goblin gloves, witches' gloves and dead men's bells.

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