Take Another Look at Foxglove

Foxglove ‘Polkadot Polly’ made a superb cut flower, one of the best I’ve grown, with a deep rosy honey-apricot color.

Foxgloves grow wild around here in my corner of west-central Washington State. They’re so populous you’d think they’re native, but these were mostly likely brought here by our European ancestors. The country road I grew up on was lined with them, and they’re abundant along many highways and in wild places.

So when I grow them for cut flowers I’m looking for something special. I don’t like people to think I just harvest wildflowers off the roadside, because I don’t—but that’s a whole other subject.

Over the years I’ve tried many species and hybrids of Digitalis, with various results. Some never germinated, or weren’t vigorous enough in the cell pack. Some didn’t live long enough to flower, and others I simply ran out of room for.

My favorite for many years has been Digitalis purpurea ‘Apricot Beauty’. Its soft apricot is so lovely that it’s worth growing simply for the color. But even better, it has nice long stems and produces flowers for a long time, especially if not allowed to go to seed. We were even able to pick some blooms in September to use at a special event, for which a customer specifically requested foxgloves.

‘Apricot Beauty’ is a true biennial, so it needs to be started in summer the year before you want to use it. I usually get plugs to set out after early annuals like agrostemma or bachelor buttons have finished. It needs a cold period before it will bloom well, so even an earlier planting does not yield a profitable bloom the first year. If we keep the plants cut and don’t allow many seeds to form, we can usually harvest for two years, though it’s best grown as a biennial.

Cut the stems when just the bottom blooms are opening. We grade them in five- and ten-stem bunches depending on the stem size. The first cutting is pretty much all five stems, but later cuttings lean heavier to ten-stem bunches. Most of our customers use them for weddings and event work. Foxgloves are perfect for mason jars arrangements as well as formal designs. Although they’re ethylene sensitive they last about a week cut.

Growers and consumers should know that Digitalis is the source of digitalin, a powerful drug used to treat heart disease. We don’t sell any flowers for food or other consumption, and are clear to customers who want edible flowers that they should find a grower who specializes in them.

‘Primrose Carousel’ is a variety similar to ‘Apricot Beauty’, but has a soft yellow tinge with a heavily spotted throat. It seems to be a good color for weddings and events, though it often fades to white late in its season and seems less heat tolerant than others.

I have repeatedly grown Digitalis lutea (photo right), a true perennial. Its soft lime-yellow bloom is small and waxy looking. It has very fine flowers and stems, and does some reblooming from side shoots, but generally we only cut it for two weeks every year. I like to have some odd items to throw in the mix of floral offering from time to time, but for the amount of space it takes it’s not a highly profitable flower. It does sell well, though, and it is pretty special.

A couple years ago I grew Digitalis lantana ‘Café Crème’. It was different; I didn’t really like it, and it didn’t sell well for me. The blooms were small, on long and narrow stems, and production was really light, only about a stem per plant. It may have perennialized and been a heavier producer, but it was not given the chance.

Polkadots and Camelots

Last year we tried a series called the Polkadot Collection. ‘Polly’ (photo left) made a superb cut flower, one of the best I’ve grown, with a deep rosy honey-apricot color. Its excellent performance may be due to the fact that it was grown in a high tunnel. It was supposed to be a first-year bloomer, and possibly flower even until Christmas. I knew if it was outside and Digitalis lutea flowered that late, they wouldn’t be useable due to the weather, so this was my reason for growing them in the high tunnel. They didn’t produce the first year, but they did flower over a very long time the following late spring and summer. They look like they’ll be perennial, as we already have very nice rosettes formed for next year.

They supposedly don’t set seeds, but if you don’t pick the flowers, pods do form, although none that I opened had seeds. Even if they didn’t live up to all the promises they were the most beautiful foxgloves ever. I look forward to trying some other colors in the series. On other note, I did pick some blooms in October, just a handful for a customer. So I wouldn’t be surprised if in some other places they did perform as promised. In western Washington in late November there was not even a hint that they might be thinking of blooming.

Of the annual foxgloves, Camelot Series is excellent for cutting. It does bloom as an annual; the flowers are useable and harvest time is good. It’s nice that they come in specific colors. We grow these, but they are not as tall as the biennial type we grow for cutting. The stems border on almost too short to cut, but they do extend the time we have foxgloves available. They will actually produce for more than one season if left in the ground. They are great for growers who don’t want to wait a year for flowers. If you get the idea these are not my favorite it’s true, but practically speaking, they are useful.

I enjoy growing foxgloves, and many available cultivars are good for cutting. They add a nice wildflower look to arrangements, offering that “just off the roadside” look with a bit more class. Why would people want that look? Not sure, other than they love the idea of danger involved in the harvest of their flowers!

Janet Foss

J. Foss Garden Flowers

Janet Foss, J. Foss Garden Flowers, is a specialty cut flower grower in Chehalis, Washington, and a long-time contributor to The Cut Flower Quarterly. Contact her at [email protected]