A native of Europe, foxglove (Digitalis pururea) was introduced into North America for ornamental and medicinal purposes. Since being introduced, foxglove has naturalized throughout the western and eastern portions of the continent, but not the central areas. It can be found predominantly at lower elevations along roadsides, in fields and at forest edges, particularly in coastal areas.
A biennial, foxglove forms a basal rosette of leaves the first year and flowers in the second year. A large plant, the erect, leafy stem can grow from 2 to 6 feet in height. The alternate leaves are egg to lance shaped and coarsely toothed, narrowing to a winged stalk. The upper side of foxglove leaves are green and hairy while the underside of the leaf is a greyish and woolly. The leaves are largest and most numerous at the base of the stem and reduced in size and number upwards.
Numerous, stalked, drooping flowers form a one-sided raceme at the end of the stem. Foxglove flowers vary from white to pink to pink-purple. The petals are fused into a long, gaping tube. There are purple spots inside the tube. There are four stamens and the sterile remnant of a fifth stamen. Five sepals and a single pistil complete the flower. Foxglove fruits are egg-shaped capsules containing very tiny seeds.
This beautiful plant is considered invasive and a noxious weed. Although hummingbirds, bees and other insects visit the flowers and foxglove is a host to several moth larvae, it is toxic to livestock and other animals. The plant contains loliolide, which has been used as an ant repellent.
All parts of the foxglove plant also contain cardiac glycosides, which are highly poisonous and affect muscle tissue and circulation. Toxicity is not lost by cooking or drying. Ingesting small amounts of foxglove can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea while eating larger amounts of foxglove creates problems with the heart, kidneys and visual and perception difficulties – even death. Despite its toxicity, folk medicine has used foxglove preparations to treat colds, fevers and heart problems and as a diuretic. Only experienced herbalists should attempt to use foxglove medicinally, if at all. Digitalis, the heart medicine, is derived from foxglove.
Many explanations, most rather fanciful, for the common name foxglove exist. One story says that fairies would put the flowers on the feet of foxes to wear so that they could quietly raid chicken coops and sneak up on other prey. Another says that the Anglo-Saxons thought that the row of flowers looked like a ring of bells hung on an arched support. The word for this instrument was “glieu” – which somehow became “glove”. Other common names for foxglove include common foxglove, lady’s glove and fairy bells, among others.
This foxglove plant was growing at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve north of Bandon OR.