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What is Digitalis Purpurea?

By B. Schreiber
Updated May 17, 2024
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Digitalis purpurea, also known as the common foxglove, is a flowering plant often used in ornamental gardens. It is notable for its long spike which bears many bell or finger-shaped flowers. Digitalis refers to the likeness of the flowers to the human finger or the finger of a glove, and there is a genus of about twenty plants with such flowers. Purpurea indicates the purple flowers the common foxglove often has, but this flower also blooms in shades of pink and white, among others. Digitalis purpurea is usually sown from seed in the garden and flowers the following summer.

Common foxglove is prized by gardeners for its tall central stem, which can be 3 to 4 feet (90 cm - 1.2 m) tall, and bears many flowers along its length. The flowers come in a variety of rose-like colors, including pale yellow and crimson. Depending on the climate, Digitalis purpurea flowers in early to midsummer. The flowers, which are darkly spotted inside, grow to a length of about 2 inches (5 cm). The blooms last one to two months. The plant has narrow, tapering leaves 4 to 10 inches (10-25 cm) long.

Foxglove is usually a biennial plant, meaning that its life cycle lasts two years. In the first year, the plant grows but produces no flowers, becoming dormant to flower in the following year. In most gardens the seed is sown on site, and Digitalis purpurea may self-seed after a year in which it has produced flowers. Removing dead flowers will prevent the plant from reseeding if this is not desired. Second-year plants can be found at nurseries and planted for flowers in the same season.

As long as the soil is not overly wet or dry, common foxglove should thrive in most conditions provided they are not extreme. Beneficial conditions include a partially shaded site, and a somewhat acidic, rich soil. Using too much mulch could result in soil conditions that are too moist and cause rot. A fully exposed site, in terms of wind and sun, is least optimal for Digitalis purpurea.

The entire plant, including leaves, seeds, roots and flowers is toxic to humans. Eating any part of Digitalis purpurea can result in extreme sickness or possibly death. Touching the leaves can cause skin irritation in some people sensitive to the plant. The heart medication digitalis was first synthesized from Digitalis purpurea, and is usually used to treat cases of heart failure, as well certain instances of heart rhythm disturbance.

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