Take a stroll through the well-tended gardens of Europe in the spring and you'll likely see scores of bell-shaped native flowers known as foxgloves (scientific name Digitalis purpurea). Typically purple, these enchanting blooms can show up in other colors, like white, pink and yellow. But their beauty masks a sinister truth — they're poisonous as all get-out.
Foxgloves are now grown in many other places around the world, although they originally hail from Europe. (The USDA even considers it an invasive weed in the Pacific Northwest.) The name of this dastardly, but lovely, plant likely comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "foxes glofa" (meaning the glove of the fox) because original admirers thought the flower resembled the fingers of a glove. It's also thought to be tied to an Irish legend in which foxes would put the flowers on their feet to muffle the sound of their steps.
Medicinal Uses of Foxgloves
Ingesting foxgloves can be fatal, particularly if it's done just before the seeds ripen, when the plant is most toxic. The leaves are also deadly, the upper leaves more than the lower ones.
The thing about foxgloves is that the very properties that make them dangerous are the same that make them helpful in medical circles. If ingested, the plant's inherent chemicals, known as cardiac glycosides, will make the heart pump harder. This can spell big trouble for many people whose hearts pump at a good rate already. A dose of foxglove (whether eating the seeds or making a tea with the leaves) acts like taking a dose of heart medication and can make the heart slow down or become dangerously irregular. Symptoms of foxglove poisoning include dizziness, vomiting, irregular heartbeat and hallucinations.
For those who don't have such well-functioning tickers, however, foxgloves (when formulated correctly) can literally be a life-saver. This was discovered way back in the late 1700s, and as a result the foxglove has been used in some form or fashion since to help treat congestive heart failure as well as irregular heartbeat. The drug's name is digitalis and is made from the dried leaves of the foxglove. Still, there's a thin line between safe and dangerous dosage of foxgloves for medicinal purposes, so it's best to leave it to the professionals who know how to make medications safely and specifically.
Other uses of foxgloves for medicinal purposes include reducing fluid retention (known as edema), cleaning wounds and creating an expectorant.
The good news is that few people of sound mind and body are likely to start munching on foxgloves out in the wild. "[It] probably tastes bad enough that you wouldn't swallow the leaves," says Robert Kourik, gardening expert and author of the book "Roots Demystified" in an email. "It is certainly not dangerous to anybody or animals to touch," he explains.
Still, if foxgloves grow in your midst be sure to keep an eye on young children or pets who tend to put things in their mouths, just in case.
How to Grow Foxgloves
Foxgloves are biennials, which means that it takes two seasons for them to perpetuate an entire life cycle. During the first year, the plant produces merely a "dense rosette of leaves," according to John Hitchcock of the Northeast Tennessee Master Gardener Association. The second year will see the trademark blooms burst forth. If you buy a plant already further along in the process (as opposed to planting from seed) you can expect the rosettes to hit their peak in late spring or summer with many 2-inch (5-centimeter) flowers.
Foxgloves can get up to 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 1.8 meters) off the ground in height, so they occasionally require staking to keep them steady, according to Hitchcock. They also grow best in partial shade and do all right in drought conditions, but prefer to have water access, around an inch (2.5 centimeters) per week.
A few foxgloves can also turn into an entire gardenful, if you so desire. "Let some flowers go to seed and you'll have some spreading around the garden," says Kourik. "I found that self-seeded plants can grow bigger (to 6+ feet) than some transplants," he adds.
Wondering how to let a plant "go to seed?" It's not as hard as it sounds to the novice gardener. In the late summer or early fall the plant will automatically start to deteriorate. When that happens, cut a stem or two and then shake seeds out over turned soil in a prepared area. Make sure they're solidly in the soil, but don't cover them up totally because sunlight is necessary to get them to germinate. By next spring, you should have new foxgloves in the first stage of life popping up.
You can also just let the foxgloves self-sow, which means that they will spread their seeds willy-nilly according to how the wind blows. Or you can harvest some seeds, plant them in pots and then put them exactly where you want in the ground once they're mature enough.
Kourik addresses the ideal location for foxglove seeds on his website. "The seed needs to fall where there isn't too much competition. Yet it will grow above some of the grasses," he writes. "But in the end, it really prefers open soil, my mulched areas or I'll find clusters of plants will thrive at the edge where mowing meets the more rangy parts of the garden."
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Now That's Cool
Foxgloves have a bad rep, but they're actually far less dangerous than many types of plants, including water hemlock, nightshade, castor bean and tobacco, among others.
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