The plant genus Fingerhut (Digitalis) belongs to the plantain family (Plantaginaceae). There are about 25 species, which are common in Europe, North Africa and West Asia. The red foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), also called cinquefoil or foxgrass, is native and widespread in our country. It grows on forest paths and clearings. There are also some garden varieties with white, apricot or pink flowers. At higher altitudes, the large-flowered thimble (Digitalis grandiflora) also occurs. The also native yellow thimble (Digitalis lutea) is more delicate and grows about 60 centimeters high.
Appearance and growth
Fingerhut grows biennially or as a short-lived perennial. In the first year the plant forms a down-to-earth, winter-green rosette of leaves with up to 20 centimetres long stemmed lanceolate leaves. They have clearly visible, net-like leaf veins and are slightly hairy in some species. Next year, the leaf rosette will develop into an unbranched inflorescence up to two metres high. This bears numerous purple-red, bell-shaped single flowers with a conspicuously spotted lower lip inside. They open in June and bloom until August. The pollinated flowers develop into 12 millimetre capsule fruits whose numerous fine seeds are sprinkled in late summer. The thimble is both a poisonous and a medicinal plant. Its ingredients, the digitalis glycosides, are used in small doses for the therapy of heart diseases. Since all parts of the plant are very poisonous, it is better not to plant the thimble in gardens where children often play. Of course, it is also not suitable for outdoor facilities in kindergartens and for planting playgrounds. Even the consumption of two to three leaves can be fatal. However, because all parts of the plant taste very bitter, poisoning is fortunately rare.
Location and soil
Most Fingerhut species prefer humus-rich, moderately moist soils, which should be nutrient-rich and low in lime. They like the semi-shade, but also grow in more light-intensive locations with sufficient soil moisture. In full-sun shrub beds, however, the thimble feels less comfortable, as it does not tolerate the direct midday sun well.
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As thimbles, like most perennials, are offered in pots, the plants can be placed in the bed all year round. As an initial plant, they are best placed in groups of three to eight specimens – this is the best way to show them off to their best advantage.
If necessary, the soil should be improved with humus, and the plants also like a mulch layer of half rotten leaves. If it has grown in well, the foxglove usually manages without fertilization and additional watering at the right location. Excess seedlings can be removed from the bed with a weed-tapper. In general, you should cut back the sperm in time if you want to prevent too much sperm from growing out. This usually also extends the life of the foxglove. A part of the rootstock is not advisable and also not necessary in the case of the foxglove. Its tap root is so sensitive that the process often fails.
Like many biennial or short-lived perennials, Fingerhut is a typical hiker in the bed: since it sows itself, it appears every year in new places without becoming too annoying. This gives the perennial bed a natural look. One can combine the thimble very well with leaf ornamental plants like Rodgersien, Funkien or Purpurglöckchen (Heuchera). It also goes well with flowering shrubs with similar habitat requirements such as Campanula latifolia var. macrantha and Astilbe. With its deep tap root, the foxglove can also hold its own under trees with intolerant roots such as birch and Norway maple. Since most foxglove species and varieties have light flowers, they look particularly good against a dark background, for example in front of a hedge or between loosely growing shrubs. They are also enchanting at the edge of natural woods. If it is rather shady and damp, fern is a good companion.
Thanks to its upright growth habit, the thimble brings vertical structure into the flower bed and can therefore be easily combined with perennials that tend to grow flat. Since the different varieties have different heights (between 60 and 200 centimetres), you should consider the height of the surrounding plants when selecting them. Tip: If you sow thimble mixtures with a wide colour spectrum such as ‘Excelsior’, the surrounding perennials should form a quiet, discreet background. The lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) with dense foliage and light green flowers is well suited. Good partners for pink or white thimbles are, for example, the magnificent cranesbill (Geranium x magnificum) and the Siberian cranesbill (Geranium wlassovianum), which with their purple flowers form an extensive sea of flowers from which the thimble can stand out boldly. Similar to the hollyhock roses, the versatile plants fit just as well into a traditional farmer’s garden. Not only in the bed are the blossom grapes a decoration, they can also be transformed into great bouquets of flowers and table decorations.
Important species and varieties
There are many different thimble species and varieties, with the red thimble (Digitalis purpurea) the selection is the largest: The wild form grows to a height of 100 to 140 centimetres and is light pink to purple red. The foxglove ‘Gloxiniaeflora’ has larger flowers than the wild form and is also slightly taller (pink to pink with dark red spots, up to 150 centimetres). The already mentioned mixture ‘Excelsior’, which consists of thimbles with purple, pink, yellow and white flowers, provides variety in the bed. The plants grow up to 120 centimetres high.
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A special eye-catcher is the variety ‘Pam’s Choice’, because the white flowers have strikingly large, wine red spots in the throat. It blooms from June to August and thrives well even in sunny locations. She grows to be 120 to 150 centimeters tall. The ‘Alba’ variety, which is only 100 centimetres in size, scores more discreetly. If you like it more elegant, you should sow the variety ‘Snow Thimble’. It is pure white, rather small (80-100 centimetres) and can be easily combined with other colours. As the name ‘Apricot’ suggests, this variety stands out from the otherwise rather white to pink thimbles. It grows up to 100 centimeters high. In our gallery we have summarized some decorative planting examples with thimbles for you.
The most important species of Fingerhuts at a glance:
Rusty foxglove (Digitalis ferruginea): very slender, dense flower clusters with orange-red individual flowers, up to 120 centimetres high, relatively tolerant of dryness and therefore also suitable for sunnier locations.
Spanish thimble (Digitalis obscura): about 70 centimetres high, yellow-orange flowers from July to August. In our case, unfortunately, only reliably hardy in protected, not too humid locations in the winegrowing climate.
Big-flowered thimble (Digitalis grandiflora): large yellow, wide open bellflowers from June to August with brownish interior drawing, up to 100 centimetres high, native wild plant
Red foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): purple pink flower bells from June to July, up to 130 centimetres high, native wild plant
Garden Fingersticks (Digitalis x mertonensis): hybrids of the red and the large flowered foxglove, up to 70 centimetres high, large, orange-rose flowers
The thimble sows itself at a suitable location and thus provides for offspring by itself. If you want to sow the plant, the best time is late summer, right after the seeds have ripened. Simply sprinkle a few seeds in the bed and cover them with a thin layer of humus. Alternatively, you can also sow them in small plant pots with growing soil. Sowing in growing trays is not recommended because the young thimbles are difficult to prick because of their taproot.
Diseases and pests
The thimble is robust and is hardly affected by pests or plant diseases. Also snail food occurs only rarely.
I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.