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What is Foxglove?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Foxglove is the common name given to a genus of flowering plants, Digitalis. There are approximately 20 species, with the iconic purple Common Foxglove being the most recognized.

Both the common name, foxglove, and the scientific name Digitalis refer to the shape of the flowers. Digitalis means literally "fingerlike," and describes the flower quite well, as they can be fit easily over a small human finger. The name is a more whimsical play on this shape, as it is easy to imagine the flowers acting as mittens for some sort of small creature, such as a fox.

Many types of foxglove are poisonous, yet have a number of medicinal uses when taken in moderation. Their toxicity has lent them some darker nicknames, such as Witches’ Gloves and Dead Man’s Bells. Although the entire plant is poisonous, the upper leaves are by far the most toxic, and in extreme cases, ingesting even a small amount can result in death. In addition to potential fatality, it can also cause vivid hallucinations, delirium, severe abdominal cramping and pain, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and intense headaches.

If no treatment is taken, the symptoms of ingesting foxglove can continue to intensify. These may include serious nervous tremors, heavy visual hallucinations, a loss of cerebral function, a slowing of the pulse, and heart palpitations. Eventually these can lead to death.

Foxglove has been in use medicinally for a long time, and was first formalized as a cure in modern medicine in the late-18th century. It was primarily used at this time to treat certain heart conditions, acting as an antiarrythmic to treat people with irregularly fast heart rates. It continues to be prescribed to people who have atrial fibrillation.

The plant is also used by some people as a hallucinogen for both spiritual reasons and entertainment. Generally, however, the dangers of ingesting foxglove are high enough that it is recommended against recreationally. Like other poisons that cause hallucination, it can easily turn from inducing a trip to killing the user.

For similar reasons, foxglove has been largely abandoned, or at least had its prescription reduced, by the herbalist community. The applications of the plant are fairly limited, and are overlapped by many other, less dangerous, herbs. Since determining the proper dosage can be difficult, and the consequences can be extreme, only the most seasoned herbalists tend to prescribe it, and even then only if there is no other substitute.

Historically, the medical world used foxglove not only to control atrial fibrillation, but also to treat various seizure disorders, including epilepsy. As other treatments became more available, however, it was largely abandoned, and is now considered an ill-advised treatment by most medical professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is foxglove and where can it be found?

Foxglove, scientifically known as Digitalis purpurea, is a flowering plant native to Europe. It thrives in woodland clearings, moorlands, and heath margins. Its habitat has expanded due to garden cultivation, and it's now found in various temperate regions across the globe. Foxglove is known for its tall spikes of bell-shaped flowers, which range in color from purple to white.

Is foxglove used for any medical purposes?

Yes, foxglove has a long history of medicinal use. The plant contains cardiac glycosides, particularly digoxin and digitoxin, which are used to treat heart conditions. According to the American Heart Association, digoxin helps in strengthening heart muscle contractions and regulating heart rhythms. However, due to its toxicity, it must be used under strict medical supervision.

Can foxglove be dangerous?

Foxglove is highly toxic if ingested, with all parts of the plant containing poisonous compounds. Ingestion can lead to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even severe cardiac issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that accidental ingestion, particularly by children and pets, can be fatal, so caution is advised when planting foxglove.

How do you grow and care for foxglove plants?

Foxglove plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and partial shade, although they can tolerate full sun in cooler climates. They are biennials or short-lived perennials, often grown as ornamentals. For optimal growth, deadhead spent flowers to encourage more blooms and prevent excessive self-seeding. Mulching helps retain soil moisture and protect the roots in winter.

Are foxgloves beneficial to the environment?

Foxgloves are beneficial to the environment as they attract pollinators like bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies, which are essential for the pollination of many plants. Their vertical growth habit also adds structural diversity to gardens, which can support a variety of wildlife. Additionally, they can be part of a garden's natural pest control strategy by attracting insect-eating birds.

When do foxglove plants bloom and for how long?

Foxglove plants typically bloom in late spring to early summer, though this can vary depending on the climate and growing conditions. The blooms last for about 4 to 6 weeks. With staggered planting or by choosing different species and cultivars, gardeners can extend the blooming period of foxgloves in their gardens.

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