Digitalis purpurea Foxglove
Digitalis purpurea

A fantasy flower that is often overlooked.
by Steven W. Brown, AIFD

1 STAND UP. Commonly known as foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, pronounced di-ji-TAL-is pur-pur-EE-a, is one of the most overlooked spike flowers. Its spikes have spotted, thimblelike florets that hang downward, giving the stems a fantasylike appearance. The bell-shaped tubular florets are usually 1.5 inches to 2.5 inches long.

2 POCKETBOOK FAMILY. Foxgloves are members of the Scrophulariaceae family, a large and horticulturally important family commonly known as the figworts. Comprised mostly of ornamental plants, it includes many popular flowers like snapdragons, Veronicas, Penstemons and Calceolarias.

3 VERY FOXY. Foxgloves originated in Europe and were introduced to North America as ornamental plants. They have naturalized and are found wild in parts of Oregon, Washington and West Virginia. The common name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “foxes glofa,” (the glove of the fox). The botanical name comes from the Latin “digitus” (finger), referring to the shape of the flowers. The species name “purpurea” means purple, in reference to the common color of this species.

4 NOT SO COMMON NAMES. Foxgloves have a whimsical appearance and lots of common names that spark the imagination such as fairy cap, fairy finger, dog’s finger, finger flower, lady’s glove, lady’s finger, lady’s thimble, lion’s mouth, rabbit’s flower, dead men’s bells and bloody fingers. Legend has it that the marks on the foxglove were a warning sign of the poisons secreted by the plant. Many names of this plant pertain to its toxic nature.

5 ROMANCE COLORS. Foxglove’s colors include pink, yellow, purple, red and white. These flowers are always bicolored, with spots or speckles in the throat.

6 IT TAKES TWO. Foxgloves are available year-round from domestic growers. They are biennial plants and will take two years to produce blossom spikes.

7 CHECK, PLEASE. Purchase foxgloves when the lower florets are fully opened and the upper florets are showing color. Look for signs of pollen or overdeveloped stems. Pollinated flowers produce ethylene gas more rapidly: the more pollen, the faster the flowers die. Foxgloves’ fuzzy foliage has a tendency to develop powdery mildew. Avoid stems that show any signs of disease.

8 SILVER AND SULFUR? Foxgloves are sensitive to ethylene and require post-harvest care treatment to prevent damage. Check with your wholesaler to make sure the flowers have been treated with an ethylene inhibitor at the farm or during transportation.

9 CUT, CUT, CUT. Upon receipt, cut foxglove stems and remove foliage that will fall below the water line. Then dip or place the stems into a hydration solution. After this treatment, place stems into a clean container of properly prepared flower food. Flowers should be stored upright at temperatures of 34 F to 36 F. These tall linear flowers are geotropic (have a response to gravity) and will begin to curve upwards if stored diagonally or horizontally.

10 TIME GOES BY. Foxgloves’ vase life will vary depending on cultivar. Generally, they will last five to 10 days with optimum care and handling. Foxgloves drink lots of water, so check water levels frequently. Customers should be directed to display these stems out of direct sun- light and away from heat and drafts.

Steven W. Brown, AIFD, is a professor and department chair of horticulture and floristry at City College of San Francisco with 27 years of consulting and educational experience in the floral industry.