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Foxglove


    Scientific Names

    Foxglove
    • Digitalis purpurea L.
    • Scrophulariaceae
    • Figwort family

    Common Names

    ivyAmerican foxglove
    ivyDead men’s bells
    ivyDigitalis
    ivyDog’s finger
    ivyFairy fingers
    ivyFairy gloves
    ivyFinger flower
    ivyFolk’s glove
    ivyFoxgloves
    ivyLadies’ glove
    ivyLion’s mouth
    ivyPurple foxglove

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    Parts Usually Used

    Leaves
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    Description of Plant(s) and Culture

    A biennial plant with a basal rosette of leaves in the first year, a leafy, erect, unbranching flowering stem in the second year.  Leaves are large and softly hairy, ovate or lance-shaped with winged stalks 3-4 feet tall with rows of hood-shaped, bright, purple flowers.  Large bell-shaped, or thimble-shaped, purple flowers have spotted insides; they are borne in a tall spike. Blooms in summer.  Full sun or partial shade.  Zones 3-10.  Not heat tolerant.

    Flowers from June to September; one-sided racemes appear; may be rose colored to deep purple and whitish with red spots on the inside; depends on the variety.

    Foxglove is grown from seed, though the germination is somewhat uncertain.  Seeds must be sown annually to maintain an annual bloom.  The soil should be rich and moist.  The plants should be fertilized with compost and mulched in fall to prevent winterkill.

    Varieties: Giant Shirley and Excelsior Hybrids are the best-known of the hybrid strains.  The strawberry foxglove, D. s mertonensis, and the straw or small yellow foxglove, D. lutea, are perennial.

    Foxglove is an essential component of cottage gardens; a drift of these flowers blooming in a lightly shaded woodland garden is a memorable sight.

    Plant in spring or fall in well-drained, organically rich soil that never dries out.  Propagate perennial varieties by division in spring; biennials such as D. purpurea will self-sow, or you can collect and sow ripe seed.  Deadheading may encourage a second flush of bloom, at the expense of seed production.  Japanese beetles and slugs often require control, while poor air circulation encourages attacks of powdery mildew.
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    Where Found

    Cultivated in East and West.  Shady places.  Although foxgloves will grow in full sun in the North, they are at their best in light shade on the edge of woodlands or among shrubs.  In hotter climates, shade is essential, and additional rich water is necessary during dry periods.

    Found in hedges, ditches and on wooded slopes, foxgloves are a fairly common sight.  New England
    Also found wild in pastures and burned-over areas on the Pacific coast from British Columbia to northern California.
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    Medicinal Properties

    Cardiac
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    Legends, Myths and Stories

    Foxglove is the common name for the plant Digitalis purpurea, from which the drug digitalis is obtained.  Foxglove was mentioned in the writings of Welsh physicians in 1250 and later by William Withering in a book published in 1785.

    This quotation is taken from Earl Mindell’s Herb Bible.  “In 1775, English physician William Withering diagnosed a patient with congestive heart failure as hopeless and sent him home to die.  A short time later, he learned that a local folk healer had cured his patient using a bunch of mysterious herbs.  Amazed by the man’s miraculous recovery, Withering investigated the herbs used by the healer and isolated foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) as the main ingredient.  After performing several experiments, Withering discovered that this purple-flowered plant was a potent cardiotonic, that is, it improved the heart’s pumping action, helping to rid the body of the excess fluid causing the congestion.  Withering also learned that in wrong doses, foxglove could be lethal, triggering a fatal arrhythmia or irregularity in the heartbeat.  For the next decade, Withering conducted numerous experiments to determine the precise amount of this drug needed to treat heart failure.  He published his results in 1785, informing other physicians of this amazing new cure.  Today, digitalis, the drug derived from foxglove, is a highly regarded treatment for heart failure.  Due to its unpredictable effect on the heart, the herb should never be consumed without a doctor’s supervision.”

    It is doubtful that Digitalis purpurea is found in China; if found it has not been identified.

    When our ancestors first used foxglove to treat heart failure, they didn’t know that this fuchsia-flowered plant contained molecules called glycosides that stimulate heart cells.
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    Uses

    The drug digitalis is extracted from the leaves.  It is used to regularize and slow heart beat and increase blood pressure.  It is also a powerful diuretic.

    Often cultivated as an ornamental but is a potentially dangerous drug, digitalis should only be used under the care of a doctor.

    Curiously, the ancient herbalists used foxglove for external uses.  It was not until 1775 that an English doctor, having heard of internal uses from a folk healer, investigated its benefits on a scientific basis.

    Unfortunately, the correct dosage varies in every case and, as the plant has poisonous properties, its administration is best left to an experienced herbalist or medical doctor.  Novices should stick to the external use of foxglove leaves; in poultices or compresses these will calm headaches, reduce tumors and lessen inflammation.
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    Warning

    This herb is deadly poison.  This is a powerful herb/drug.  Use only under medical supervision.  Even touching the plant with bare skin has been known to cause rashes, headache, and nausea.

    First year’s leaf growth (rosette) has been mistaken for leaves of Comfrey, with fatal results.  Therapeutic dose of Digitalis is dangerously close to lethal dose.  Do not take this herb internally especially if taking Digitalis.  This herb is for use by physicians only.

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    Resource Links

    Read about foxglove on Prime Time television.

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    Bibliography

    Buy It! The Herb Book, by John Lust, Bantam Books, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. copyright 1974.

    Buy It! The Complete Medicinal Herbal, by Penelope Ody, Dorling Kindersley, Inc, 232 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, First American Edition, copyright 1993

    Buy It! Chinese Medicinal Herbs, compiled by Shih-Chen Li, Georgetown Press, San Francisco, California, 1973.

    Buy It! Culpeper's Complete Herbal & English Physician: Updated With 117 Modern Herbs, by Nicholas Culpeper, Meyerbooks, publisher, PO Box 427, Glenwood, Illinois 60425, 1990, (reprint of 1814)

    Buy It! Earl Mindell's Herb Bible, by Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., Simon & Schuster/Fireside, Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020

    Buy It! Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke., Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10000

    Buy It! The Nature Doctor: A Manual of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, by Dr. H.C.A. Vogel; Keats Publishing, Inc., 27 Pine Street (Box 876) New Canaan, CT. 06840-0876. Copyright Verlag A. Vogel, Teufen (AR) Switzerland 1952, 1991

    Herbal Gardening, compiled by The Robison York State Herb Garden, Cornell Plantations, Matthaei Botanical Gardens of the University of Michigan, University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley., Pantheon Books, Knopf Publishing Group, New York, 1994, first edition

    Buy It! Planetary Herbology, by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., O.M.D., Lotus Press, PO Box 325, Twin Lakes. WI 53181., Copyright 1988, published 1992

    Buy It! American Folk Medicine/i>, by Clarence Meyer, Meyerbooks, publisher, PO Box 427, Glenwood, Illinois 60425, 1973

    Buy It! Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 15th Edition, F. A. Davis Company, 1915 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

    Buy It! Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, Victoria Neufeldt, Editor in Chief, New World Dictionaries: A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 15 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10023

    Buy It! An Instant Guide to Medicinal Plants, by Pamela Forey and Ruth Lindsay, Crescent Books (January 27, 1992).

    Buy It! The Rodale Herb Book: How to Use, Grow, and Buy Nature's Miracle Plants (An Organic gardening and farming book), edited by William H. Hylton, Rodale Press, Inc. Emmaus, PA, 18049., 1974

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