Beautiful foxglove has long history in medicine

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 5, 2014 


A foxglove at the Arboretum. The beautiful plant is a biennial that doesn't like hot afternoon sun.


In the 18th century they called it "dropsy." An old medical text explains the symptoms of this cardiac malady that caused such irregular or weak heartbeats that patients literally drowned in their own fluids.

The disease known as dropsy "puffed their bodies into grotesque shapes, squeezed their lungs, and finally brought slow but inexorable death."

There was only one known treatment for dropsy, a potion brewed around rural England by folk healers.

After seeing the effects of such a potion, a young English physician, William Withering, sought to find its efficacious ingredients. Each recipe differed, but the single common component was a plant: foxglove.

Botanically known as Digitalis purpurea and easily recognized by its tall flower stalks, it grew in the fields, fens and gardens of England.

Withering's effort transformed the medical arts by testing the plant and soon the active chemical was isolated and dubbed digoxin.

It has been used in medicine ever since to regulate heartbeat of humans and animals. It may be the most efficacious of all the herbal materia medica due to cardiac glycosides and digoxin, the heart-regulating component.

This is the amazing history of a beautiful garden flower that's found in cottage yards and highbrow manor houses. As a bedding plant, it's been bred to be larger and offer more colors than the wildflowers of Withering's day. Breeding of various species of digitalis has resulted in striking hybrids.

But now that you know the history of its use for dropsy, it becomes clear this is no plant to play with.

In fact, one of its old common names is "dead man's bells" due to the potential of fatal overdose. Beware of growing it in yards with kids and pets that might find its velvety flowers appetizing. The leaves can be easily mistaken for the benign herb called comfrey.

The curious common name, foxglove, was derived from the tubular, finger-size flowers. Foxes were thought to place the flowers on their feet to silence their steps when raiding the henhouse.

Foxglove is among the most beautiful bedding flowers you can buy either as a youngster or in full second-year bloom. As a biennial, foxglove has a two-year life cycle.

If you buy young, first-year seedlings — the ones that are the most affordable — they might bloom modestly or not at all so the roots can become established the first summer. Then the foliage dies back to overwinter. The second year it will explode into bloom with massive, full-size stalks supported by mature roots.

The key to success with any biennial is to plant a few first-year plants every spring. These are your investment in next year's garden. Meanwhile last year's plants are busting out all over for a great spring and summer show.

In mild foggy climates, foxglove can grow in full sun. They have naturalized to become invasive wildflowers on the New England coast amid grasslands and scrub. In warmer climates foxgloves are best grown in shade, or where they are protected from afternoon sun.

This might be one of the best perennials for acidic soils of woodland home sites and as seasonal color in old neighborhoods shrouded by massive, old shade trees.

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