Foxglove - Digitalis purpurea

foxglove botany with brit

When I first learned that foxglove was a native of Europe I was a bit surprised. My misconception arose from a distinct memory in childhood: my grandmother had traveled to California and mailed me a beautiful packet of foxglove seeds labeled The Wildflowers of California. I was struck by the pretty tubular flowers and resolved in my childish mind that someday I would live where foxgloves grow. Luckily for me, they grow a lot of places; it turns out they're a weed. One plant can produce up to 5000 seeds - they're good at growing themselves, so I suppose they can technically be considered a wildflower. But I think this seed packet marketer was pretty crafty - and at least he was selling the prettiest weed I've ever seen.

The petals of the flowers are fused into tubes that hang pendulously on one side of a tall stalk. The pink and white flowers have spots on their interior and lower lip that directs the pollinators towards the nectar, and its not unusual to see hummingbirds enjoying them too. There are 20-80 flowers on a single stalk, and the plant likely got its name from a bastardization of the Anglo Saxon word that referred to an instrument with bells hanging on an arched support: foxes gliew. Foxglove is a biennial; the first year only a rosette of leaves appears on the ground, but the second year the effusive raceme appears.... Raceme: a flower cluster with separate flowers attached to a central stem (if you were wondering).

Not only is foxglove pretty, but it's also highly poisonous. Foxglove contains cardiac glycosides, a compound which increases the intensity of heart muscle contractions but diminishes the rate - and can diminish it to the point of death. Did you hear that? It stops your heart. Don't go munching on it, for heavens sake. This toxic compound is isolated by pharmaceutical producers and used to create modern heart medications like Lanoxin, used to treat congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation.

The plant was first brought to the attention of allopathic medicine by a Scottish doctor named Dr. William Withering. In 1785 he published a paper named Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medicinal Uses. Ten years before, he had been unsuccessfully treating a patient with dropsy, an old-fashioned word for edema due to heart failure. After his treatments failed to produce any improvement in the patient, the family decided to try a remedy from a local woman with a knowledge of herbs, and the patient began to recover after a concoction containing foxglove was administered. Dr. Withering was excited about the turn of events and spent several years studying and experimenting with the plant. He found that the therapeutic dose was very close to the toxic dose, and he documented which methods of preparation were most effective (I haven't found out if all of his patients survived or not). Obviously the knowledge of this plant's usefulness existed long before Withering came along, but the person who writes the paper often gets the credit.

Most importantly, it's good to know that faeries live where foxglove grows. One tale says that evil faeries gave this plant to foxes so that they could wear the flowers on their feet to silently sneak into the coup to steal chickens. So if you want faeries around, plant foxglove.