Recognizing  The Foxglove  Digitalis purpurea

This series of pages will look at the poisonous plants that are harmful to human health when eaten or handled.

The flower spike just before flowering commences,

photographs by Dal

The Foxglove.

The foxglove Digitalis purpurea was until recently placed in the family Scrophulariaceae but is now placed in the much enlarged family of flowering plants Plantaginaceae.

I start with this plant because it is a species that also adorns gardens as well as the wider countryside.


Although the foxglove is termed as having a biennial root system the strong, thick fibrous growth of the system often produces flowering stems for many years in succession. As such the foxglove may also be correctly referred to as a short lived perennial.

In the first year of growth the plant produces a basal rosette of leaves only. During the second year of growth one or more flowering stems arise from the root system. The stems grow to an impressive sight growing to a height of up to five feet or more

The leaves which are oval to lanceolate  are at the base of a radical nature. They can be over a foot long especially in the second year of growth. They taper at the base into a long winged stalk. They have slightly indented margins  and sloping lateral veins which are a very prominent feature. The flowering stems give off a few leaves that gradually get smaller from the bottom upwards. All the leaves are covered with small simple unbranched hairs. 


Foxglove foliage varies greatly in size depending on their position and stage of growth.

photographs by Dal

The flowers.

During the second year of growth the foxglove sends up its majestic flower spikes which may attain the height of up to six feet but generally they are smaller than this. In all cases the flowering stem is massed with numerous , drooping, bell shaped flowers. here in the north of England they may be encountered from late May until July, however, the flowering period is dependent on growing conditions and the locality, for example if the plant is growing in shady woodland or in an open sunny aspect, the foxglove seems to thrive in both aspects.

In addition to the main flowering stem the plant produces lateral shoots of flowers  {although the flowers on these shoots are much less numerous}. These ensure some seeds are formed if any damage should occur to the main flowering stem.

The numerous flowers are bell-shaped and tubular being 1.5-2.5 inches long {3-5 cm}. they are flattened above and inflated beneath, the lower lip is furnished with long dark hairs and the lip is marked with numerous dark crimson spots each surrounded with a white border. The lower lip is 3 lobed and about 5 cm long the upper lip is shorter. The flowers are arranged in elongated clusters. 

Garden varieties produce many colours.

photographs by Dal

Foxglove flowers.

The life of each flower that open from the bottom upwards is about 6 days. They then fall and are succeeded by "onion" shaped seed capsules. When the ripe the capsule splits open to release the tiny dust like seeds. Each plant is capable of producing between one and two million seeds. Only a small percentage of these will germinate. The flowers are visited by many insects but it is the Bumble bee that is the source of pollination.

Close up of the flowers----bottom the onion shaped seed vessels of the foxglove

photographs by Dal

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Deadly poisonous.

Depending on the species of Digitalis the plant may contain several deadly attributes.  Chemical components are related to cardiac and steroidal glyocides. Thus arrived many country titles for the plant which include dead man's bells and witches glove. The entire plant is poisonous including the roots and seeds, the leaves of the upper stem are particularly so.

The early symptoms of foxglove poisoning include nausea, vomiting, the runs, abdominal pain,hallucinations, delirium and severe headache. depending on the severity of the poison and the amount consumed the victim may later show among the symptoms of brain malfunction, slow pulse rate, tremors, convulsions and fatal disturbances of the heart.

The drying of the plant does not reduce the affect of the poison in any degree. 

Despite is very poisonous nature the plant is used medicinally. Extracts of Digitalis known as Digitalin are used in heart tablets where it used to regulate the heart beat. Especially in atrial fibrillation.

In conventional medicine it is used as a standard preparation for cardiac problems. In Homeopathy to treat weak heartbeat, kidney trouble, depression, insomnia and migraine.

Foxglove should NOT be used in home made preparations, the risk of poisoning is very great.

It is recommended that you should wash your hands after touching the plant.

                                       ASSOCIATED PAGES

COMFREY--{for foliage identification.} 

Poisonous Plants-2

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