Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

A well-known plant found across the UK, which produces a spike of pink-purple flowers.

Common name: foxglove

Scientific name: Digitalis purpurea
Family: Scrophulariaceae

What do foxgloves look like?

Leaves: ovoid in shape, 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: 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 confused with foxglove when not in flower as the leaves are similar. Comfrey leaves can however be distinguished as they are untoothed so have smoother leaf edges.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus): first year plants could be confused with first year foxglove plants when no flowers are present but great mullein has untoothed leaves and is hairier.

Where and when to find foxgloves

Where: roadside verges, woodland edges, heaths, gardens and along hedgerows. Plants grow well in areas where soil is acidic and can be found across the UK.

When: a biennial or perennial which flowers from June to September.

Value to wildlife

Foxgloves are adapted to be pollinated by bees, especially long-tongued bees such as the common carder bee. The plant’s brightly coloured flowers and dark spotted lip attracts the bees, and the lower lip of the flower means that the insect is able to land before climbing up the tube. During this process the bee will dislodge pollen and then transfer it to another plant.

Uses and folklore

Medicine: the foxglove contains a chemical which can be used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure as it can raise blood flow and increase the body’s defence mechanisms. However this plant is poisonous.

Poetry: Foxgloves are a very striking plant so it is no wonder they have been mentioned in various poems, such as ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ by Anne Finch, as well as being the star of poems themselves, for example the aptly named ‘Foxgloves’ by Mary Webb.

Folklore: Originally the plant was referred to as folksglove, which was a reference to fairies because of the plants grow in woodland. The ‘glove’ part of their name was simply due to the flowers looking like glove fingers.

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