Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Fairy Thimbles, Goblin Gloves (Wales), Witches’ Gloves, Dead Men’s Bells (Scotland), Great Herb (Ireland), Folk’s Gloves, Foxesglew, Fox’s Music (Anglo-Saxon), Fairy Caps, Virgin’s Glove, Our Lady’s Gloves
About This Plant
With common names like “Fairy Thimbles” and “Witches’ Gloves”, one can only imagine the mystical and magical history of the whimsical, fascinating, and ultimately deadly Foxglove plant.
These beautiful plants are biennials, establishing and growing leaves in their first year and sending up large flower spikes their second. They are hardy in USDA zones 4 – 9. In warmer climates, they grow as annuals, completing their life cycle and forming seeds all within a year. In the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, they grow as short-lived perennials. They are hardy plants, and fairly disease resistant. Powdery mildew may be an issue if grown in hot and humid summers. Foxglove reaches a height of two to three feet, sometimes more. They look spectacular along a back border of a flower garden. Many people enjoy growing Foxglove just for the statuesque beauty of its tall stalks, laden with large, intricately-detailed blossoms that are loved by nectar-seeking pollinators.
Foxglove commonly grows in shaded or woodland gardens, cottage or informal gardens, or wildflower gardens. In nature, it is found in heathland and woodlands. Foxglove, though poisonous and potentially deadly, contains the important and potent cardio glycoside compound, digitalis which is used extensively in the healthcare industry for cases of heart failure and arrhythmias. It is grown commercially in Germany, England, India, and several other Eastern European countries. An old saying about Foxglove is, “It can raise the dead and it can kill the living”.
Foxglove forms beautiful and large flower spikes with drooping bell-shaped blooms. The flowers begin opening at the base of the spike first and progress upward to the progressively smaller blooms toward the top of the spike. The flowers are bell-shaped and tubular, about 1 ½ – 2 ½ inches long, flattened on their tops, and inflated on their lower sides. Foxglove has pink, to light purple flowers though many other color varieties have been cultivated. The inside of the tubular flower is lighter in color than the outside and marked with irregular dark crimson blotches, each surrounded by a white border. The blooms are loved by bees and hummingbirds alike. Insects are said to take refuge in the large blossoms on cold and wet evenings. It typically flowers between June and September, with the flowers, said to be at “perfection” in July. As the blossoms on the main stem gradually fall away, the plants often throw out smaller lateral shoots from its lower parts which remain in bloom after the main stem fades. Each flower, from the time the bud opens until the time it slips off its corolla, lasts about six days.
The leaves of the plant are often more than a foot long. They have slightly indented margins and sloping lateral veins which are a prominent feature. The flowering stems give off a few leaves that diminish in size as they ascend the stalk. All the leaves are covered with small, simple hairs. The odor of the fresh leaves is unpleasant and the taste of both the fresh and dried leaves is disagreeably bitter. Other than insects and pollinators, animals leave Foxglove alone.
The Digitalis genus contains about 20 species of herbaceous biennials, perennials, and shrubs. Foxglove was traditionally placed in the Figwort family, Scrophulariaceae, until new genetic research led to its reclassification in the much larger Plantaginaceae family. The Latin word “digitus” means “finger” and is in reference to the flowers that resemble the fingers of a glove.
The Foxglove plant is steeped in myth and folklore. The English name, Foxglove, comes from the phrase “folk’s gloves” meaning, “belonging to the fairy folk.” It was believed to keep evil away if grown in a garden but was considered unlucky to bring the flowers inside. Planting Foxglove was an invitation for the fairies to come visit. It was often plated in medieval gardens dedicated to the Virgin Mary and called “Our Lady’s Gloves,” or “the Gloves of the Virgin”. Scandinavian legends say the fairies taught foxes to ring the Foxglove bells to warn each other of approaching hunters. In Roman mythology, Flora showed Hera how to impregnate herself with no need of a man by touching Foxglove to her belly and breasts, giving birth to Mars. Legend has it that Van Gogh treated his epilepsy with Foxglove.
Comfrey could be mistaken for Foxglove when not in flower as the leaves are similar. Great Mullein is another plant it might be confused with when no flowers are present. Take care to correctly identify the plants. You should wear gloves when working with Foxglove. Digitalis is poisonous. The symptoms of Foxglove toxicity include vomiting, headache, irregular heartbeat, and convulsions. Overdose can be fatal.
Different varietals of Foxglove may cross-pollinate in the garden, causing color dominance or variations in the next generation.
Foxglove can be sown indoors ten to twelve weeks before the last expected Spring frost or sown directly outdoors in the Spring or late Fall. The seeds are small and light and need light to germinate so do not cover them. Pat them in place and water them in with care. Keep soil moist, but not soggy. The seeds should germinate in two to four weeks.
Foxglove starts should be gradually acclimated to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting outside once all risk of frost is gone. Plants should be spaced about 12 inches apart for adequate air circulation to discourage fungal diseases.
Foxglove will tolerate almost any soil type, as long as it’s not very wet or very dry. They will grow in shade to full sun – those grown in full sun are the most poisonous. Ideal conditions are well-drained, loose soil with some slight shade.
Cutting the stalk down before it goes to seed will usually result in the plant reblooming late in the summer. If desired, you can let the flowers from the second bloom go to seed. Foxglove will naturally reseed itself and these volunteers can be easily transplanted to your desired location. Make sure newly transplanted plants are well-watered to help them get established.
Foxglove seeds can be collected once mature by covering the flower spikes with paper bags (such as those used by bakers to wrap baguettes). Once the seedheads have dried, shake them to remove the seed and scatter them where you’d like them to grow, or store them in a cool, dry, airtight space. A single Foxglove plant grows from one to two million seeds to help ensure its propagation.
- Companion plant – if grown near other plants Foxglove will stimulate their growth and help them to resist disease; it is said to greatly improve the storage quality of apples, potatoes, and tomatoes if grown nearby.
- Extends the life of flower arrangements – Foxglove in a flower arrangement makes all the other flowers last longer; if you do not want the actual flowers in the vase, you can make a tea from the stems or blossoms and add it to the water.
- Attractive in flower gardens and cottage gardens, especially in back borders.
Foxglove is toxic and should not be consumed.
Foxglove, known by the Latin name Digitalis purpurea, is a prime example of a plant, whose use by traditional herbalists led to its use by the pharmaceutical industry. It was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1650, though it did not come into frequent use until a century later. In 1775, an English physician named William Withering, after receiving a testimonial from an herbal healer reported that a tea made from Foxglove was useful in curing “dropsy” which was the term used to describe the edematous condition associated with heart-related problems. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that health practitioners made the link between Foxglove and congestive heart failure and that medicines were derived from the plant and developed into prescription drugs. Digitalis works by slowing the heart but increasing the effectiveness of each pump. It increases the force of heart contractions, leading to the more efficient movement of blood throughout the body. This allows the heart more resting time between contractions. Herbalists have largely abandoned using Foxglove, the source of the cardiac glycoside digitoxin, because of its narrow therapeutic index and the difficulty in determining the amount of active drug in herbal preparations. In other words, it is extremely dangerous to use and can be deadly.
The entire Foxglove plant is extremely poisonous. Its taste is very bitter and can cause irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth causing pain and swelling. It causes diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, so, fortunately, if it is ingested, it soon comes out. It should only be planted where children and animals do not have access to it and you should wear gloves when handling the plants or seeds.
Foxglove is native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Canary Islands.