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Digitalis purpurea (common foxglove)

A popular ornamental, with tall spires of tapered, tubular, purple to pink or white flowers, common foxglove is also a source of digitoxin, used in the heart drug digitalis.

Common foxglove flowers

Digitalis purpurea (common foxglove)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Digitalis purpurea L.

Common name: 

common foxglove, purple foxglove, fairy fingers, fairy gloves, fairy bells, floppy dock, tod-tails

Conservation status: 

Not threatened. Not evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Open places, especially woodland clearings, heaths and mountainsides and also waste ground (especially on disturbed sites and as a pioneer on burnt areas); on acid or calcareous soils; also as a garden escape.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

All parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten. Contact with plant material can cause irritation.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Asteranae
Order: 
Lamiales
Family: 
Plantaginaceae
Genus: Digitalis

About this species

Digitalis purpurea was named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his pivotal publication Species Plantarum in 1753. The generic name Digitalis comes from the Latin for finger (digitus), referring to the shape of the flowers. The specific epithet purpurea refers to the colour of the flowers, which are frequently purple (although a white-flowered form is fairly common). Common foxglove is a popular ornamental, and many hybrids and cultivars are available.

Medicinal Uses

Foxgloves are a source of digitoxin, a glycoside used in the drug digitalis, which has been used as a heart stimulant since 1785. It is also well-known for its toxicity, and ingestion of the leaves (usually as a result of misidentification for comfrey, Symphytum officinale) can result in severe poisoning.

Despite their toxicity, they have been widely used in folk-medicine. Foxglove tea (an infusion of the leaves) was taken for colds, fevers and catarrh, and compresses were used for ulcers, swellings and bruises. Its most common use was as a diuretic against dropsy (accumulation of fluid in the tissues), for which it was sometimes effective, but occasionally proved fatal.

William Withering, an 18th century botanist and physician, studied the medicinal use of foxgloves, in particular their use in the treatment of dropsy. He discovered that an infusion of the leaves could slow and strengthen the heartbeat, which in turn stimulated the kidneys to clear the body and lungs of excess fluid. He also showed that foxglove leaves could be used in the treatment of heart failure (but that high doses could stop the heart).

Withering’s An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses: with Practical Remarks on Dropsy, and Other Diseases (1785) is a landmark publication, being the first English text in which the therapeutic effects of a drug are described, and is considered by some to mark the birth of modern pharmacology. Withering’s work led to the eventual isolation and purification of digitoxin and digoxin (cardiac glycosides used in modern medicine as heart stimulants in the drug digitalis).

Today, digitalis is normally made using Digitalis lanata leaves (although during the Second World War D. purpurea seeds were collected from the wild and grown to produce large quantities of leaves for medicinal use).

Genus: 
Digitalis

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Common foxglove is thought to be native to west, south-west and west central Europe, and to be widely naturalised further east.

Its exact status, whether truly native or naturalised, in each country is unknown, but it is possibly native in the following countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy (Sardinia), Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden (and perhaps also Austria, Denmark, Hungary, The Netherlands and Poland).

It is naturalised in North America, and is listed as an ‘invasive and noxious weed’ by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Description

 

Fruit of Digitalis purpurea

Fruit of Digitalis purpurea

An erect biennial (or short-lived perennial), growing up to 2 m tall, with a downy covering of hair. The basal leaves are ovate to lanceolate and are borne on a winged petiole (leaf stalk) of 3–12 cm long. The flowers are borne on a simple or sparsely branched raceme with un-stalked bracts; the upper bracts are sometimes minute. The pedicels (individual flower stalks) are 11–20 mm long and hairy. The corolla (petals) is purple to pale pink or white, 40–55 mm long, and is usually marked on the inside with dark purple spots edged with white. The fruit is an ovoid capsule of 11 x 7 mm, equal to or longer than the calyx (sepals). The brown, rectangular seeds are almost 1 mm long, with a network of ridges across the surface.

The flowers usually open between June and September and are pollinated by bumblebees.

Uses

Common foxglove

Common foxglove is cultivated for its ornamental value, and many hybrids (with other Digitalis species) and cultivars are available. It is also grown to attract bumblebees to gardens. Its flowers provide food for larvae of the foxglove pug moth (Eupithecia pulchellata) and it is also a food plant for larvae of the frosted orange moth (Gortyna flavago).

Digitalis purpurea also contains loliolide, a potent ant-repellent which was once used as an insecticidal disinfectant for walls in the Forest of Dean, England.

Toxicity of foxgloves

The main toxins in Digitalis species are cardiac glycosides, which are present in all parts of the plant. The flowers contain the lowest concentration of toxins, yet their ingestion can still result in gastrointestinal effects. The ingestion of leaves can cause oral and abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In severe cases, symptoms can include visual and perceptual disturbances and heart and kidney problems. There have been many reported cases of poisoning, for example when foxglove leaves have been mistakenly collected by those wishing to make comfrey (Symphytum officinale) herbal tea.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

 

Seeds of Digitalis purpurea

 

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 0.1 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 33
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive drying without significant reduction in their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: 100% germination was achieved on a 1% agar medium, at a temperature of 15°C, on a cycle of 8 hours of daylight/16 hours darkness.
Composition values: Average oil content = 37.4%. Average protein content = 16.2%.

This species at Kew

Close up of the common foxglove

At Kew, Digitalis purpurea can be seen growing wild in the grounds of Queen Charlotte's Cottage. It is also grown in the Queen’s Garden (behind Kew Palace), the Secluded Garden, and the Woodland Garden around the Temple of Aeolus. Extensive areas of foxgloves can be seen in the woodlands at Wakehurst.

Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of common foxglove are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen on-line in the Herbarium Catalogue.

Specimens of Digitalis purpurea leaves, seeds, roots, wood, prepared digitalis BP, a ‘concentrated infusion of foxglove’, and digoxin tablets are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

 

Kew at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011

Artist's impression of Kew's garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011.

In 2011, Kew partnered with The Times to produce a show garden to showcase the significance of plants to science and society.

The garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Marcus Barnett, featured species chosen to demonstrate both beauty and utility, including medicinal, commercial, and industrial uses to underline the fact that plants are invaluable to our everyday lives – without them, none of us could live on this planet; they produce our food, clothing and the air that we breathe.

Digitalis purpurea was one of the species that featured in the garden, which was awarded a Silver Medal.

References and credits

Aronson, J.K. (1985). An Account of the Foxglove and its Medical Uses, 1785-1985. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dauncey, E.A. (2010). Poisonous Plants: A Guide for Parents & Childcare Providers. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Huxley, A. (ed.) (1997). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, Volume 2 (D-K). Macmillan Reference Ltd, London.

Lin, C.-C., Yang, C.-C., Phua, D.-H., Deng, J.-F. & Lu, L.-H. (2010). An outbreak of foxglove leaf poisoning. Journal of the Chinese Medical Association 73: 97-100.

Mabberley, D.J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mabey, R. (1997). Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.A. (eds) (2002). New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: An Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (2008) Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 22 February 2011).

Stace, C. (1997). New Flora of the British Isles, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The Plant List (2010). Digitalis purpurea. Available online (accessed 06 February 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Emma Tredwell
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. 

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