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Gardening for Health

Cottage Gardens Call For Foxglove 

By Maria Price 

If you’re going for the look of a cottage garden, then you absolutely need to grow foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). They are stately flowers on tall spikes about 3 to 5 feet tall. Foxglove is also known as dead man’s bells, witch’s bells or fairy fingers.  

Foxglove is among the loveliest, most famous, most important, and most dangerous medicinal plants. Its long green leaves are powdered into digitalis, a cardiac stimulant that keeps millions of heart patients alive. But for everyone else, it is extremely poisonous. A leaf chewed and swallowed may cause paralysis and sudden heart failure. Before you put it into your garden, teach your children to not touch poisonous plants. 

Foxglove is native to western Europe and was introduced in America in the 1700s. The use of digitalis was discovered in 1775 by English physician William Withering. He heard of an old woman in Shropshire who practiced folk medicine with herbs gathered in the countryside. A patient afflicted with excessive fluid retention due to congestive heart failure whom Withering expected to die was allegedly cured by this healer. At the time, this condition was known as “dropsy”. From the healer’s bag of weeds, Withering was able to deduce that foxglove was the key plant in treating the edema. He also learned that foxglove is a deadly poison, as likely to stop the heart as to keep it going. For 10 years, he conducted precise experiments to determine the proper dosage. The paper he published in 1785 is a classic of medical literature. 

The active components are a category of chemicals known as cardiac glycosides. The plant contains several glycosides including digitoxin, gitoxin and gitaloxin which act directly on heart muscle increasing the output in patients with congestive heart failure. It acts as a cardio-active diuretic in conditions of edema due to heart failure. 

Foxglove is easily grown from seed and prefers somewhat moist, acidic soil in dappled sun to shade. It is a biennial from the Scrophulariaceae family, and forms a rosette of long-stalked leaves in its first year. In the second year, it grows a stem that can be 2 to 5 feet tall. The leaves are lance- or oval-shaped. Spires of white to pinkish-lavender to red thimble-shaped flowers are speckled inside with dots and form from June to September. D. lutea and D. mertonensis are both true perennials. 

Thanks to its chemical constituents, foxglove is also deer resistant. It is also attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. “Apricot Beauty” is a lovely variety. “Excelsior” produces many colors and is very tall. Plant some in your cottage garden this summer.