Digitalis Purpurea drawings by Franz Köhler
Witness Post: A Flower Obsession for Foxglove
Have you ever said to yourself, “I have to own that flower?” Have you searched for the perfect specimen of that flower, even wandering on private land to dig it up and transplant it in your own garden? Well, I have, and the covetous urge which pushes me to trespass is down right scary. The flower of my particular obsession is in the family Plantaginaceae and the genus Digitalis, commonly known as Foxglove. It is a remarkable plant with an even more remarkable history of danger, delight, and healing.
At the risk of sounding like I need professional help, the root of this story goes back to my childhood, seeing the foxglove spires in our neighborhood in Pennsylvania. The petals fit over my fingertips: the long and cylindrical flowers, with their purple outsides and spotted pink and white insides, transformed into finger gloves of sorts. Years later, as a parent, our three daughters did the exact same thing when they came upon foxglove petals in our garden in Maryland. There must be some natural instincts at work here. I am not sure where the name foxglove comes from, but the fact that the petals fit on your fingers, or the paws of a fox, must have something to do with its origins. Good thing the plants don’t hold fingerprints.
In college I took a lot of literature and poetry courses and noticed that foxgloves were mentioned by William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Keats, Christina Rossetti and JC Patterson. The foxglove flower represents fecundity, solitude, nature, marriage, bells, death, spires, and many other images. The variety of references is remarkable, and many lines of poetry end in foxglove because it rhymes with love. I even took a course called “The Psychology of Children’s Literature” and read some Beatrix Potter stories. One of the images that struck me was in the stories with Jemima Puddleduck. She was always being coaxed by the wicked Fox into falling for some clever ruse, where he could have her for dinner, literally. Whenever Jemima was near the Fox, Potter would illustrate the encounters with flowering foxgloves nearby, as a subtle warning sign of DANGER! Like the Little Red Riding Hood stories, Jemima was able to avoid losing her life, but she still learned lessons about the evil among us. It may be more than a coincidence that there are other sinister nicknames for digitalis: Dead Man’s Bells and Witches’ Gloves.
Eat What You Grow … sometimes
Eating the plants and flowers that you grow in gardens is an important way to live off the land. Nasturtiums or pansies are colorful and tasty additions to salads. On the other hand I have never eaten foxglove. There is a long history of herbalists, apothecaries, naturalists, and doctors experimenting with foxgloves for medicinal purposes. Apparently if digested in too large a dose, foxglove is toxic to humans, especially in children, where it can cause nausea, jaundice, vomiting, diarrhea, blurry vision, loss of appetite, and other disorders. While dangerous, foxglove also has some extraordinarily good qualities. It has proven to be an effective natural prevention against rapid heart palpitations (atrial fibrillation or A-FIB for short) and other ailments. It is better, though, to leave the mixing of this flower into an herbal concoction to the professionals, even if it does help calm your heart.
One of the startling positive references to foxglove as medicinally great wonder drug comes from the website of Texas A&M University. Their botany site states: “Digitalis is without question the most valuable cardiac drug ever discovered and one of the most valuable drugs in the entire pharmacopoeia. The introduction of digitalis (drugs) was one of the landmarks in the history of cardiac disease.” http://botany.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/Wilson/481/medbot/bot2.htm
The active ingredients in foxglove are called Cardiac Glycosides, which are also found in flowering plants, such as oleander and lily-of-the-valley. Glycosides can be good for you, but only if used correctly. They have a history of both good and bad designs. On the good side, certain herbal dietary supplements contain cardiac glycosides. The ancient Egyptians used glycosides as a medicine and the Romans employed it as a diuretic, heart tonic, and emetic. On the ominous side, the Egyptians also used glycodies as rat poison. For centuries indigenous people in various parts of the world have used plant extracts containing glycosides as arrow tip poisons to kill their prey and enemies internally, even if they are only grazed by the arrow point.
Digitalis, or foxglove, has a long history with man. It was mentioned as early as 1250 AD in the writings of Welsh physicians. The German scholar Fuchsius described it botanically 300 years later and gave it the name Digitalis purpurea. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/154336-overview
Other Glycosides are found in Oleander & Lily-of-the-valley
Dropsy & Digitalis
Another reference which refers to the medical use of foxglove goes back to the Revolutionary War. There was a British doctor named William Withering (1741 – 1799) from Shropshire, England, who is known as the father of digitalis medicine. Withering grew up in a medical family and he was both an apothecary and a surgeon. During his medical career, he wrote extensively about digitalis purpurea and its benefits for people with “dropsy.” Not being familiar with the symptoms of dropsy, it seems to have been a scourge on the people of England and the rest of Europe and it was among the top three causes of death at the time.
According to early descriptions, Dropsy is the common name for the disease called Hydrops — a condition that puffed the victim’s body into “grotesque shapes, squeezed their lungs, and finally brought slow but inexorable death.” Apparently, as the disease progressed, “a watery liquid filtered into every available interior space and expanded it like a balloon. Sometimes the liquid –quarts and gallons of it– made arms and legs swell so that they were immovable. Sometimes it poured into the abdomen to form a tremendous paunch. Sometimes it waterlogged the lung cavity and thereby made it impossible for the victim to breathe unless he sat bolt upright all day and all night.” http://botany.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/Wilson/481/medbot/bot2.htm#D1
William Withering was hailed as a medical hero by his patients with dropsy; however, he was unsuccessful in his experiments trying to expand foxglove potions to cure asthma, epilepsy, hydrocephalus, insanity and other diseases. Withering suffered from a life-long battle with tuberculosis, the number one killer of the era, eventually succumbing to the disease at age 56.
When I described dropsy to my family, my daughters said in unison that it sounded like the inflating condition suffered by Violet Beauregard in Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory! In the story Violet blew up until she looked like a human balloon. Her fate was equally bad.
Survival of the Fittest
In my research I read that Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, employed digitalis to great outcomes with his dropsy patients. He even sought to immortalize the plant in a poem:
Bolster’d with down, amid a thousand wants,
Pale Dropsy rears his bloated form, and pants;
“Quench me ye cool pellucid rills,” he cries,
Wets his parched tongue and rolls his hollow eyes.
Divine Hygeia from the bending sky
Descending, listens to his piercing cry;
Assumes bright Digitalis dress and air;
Her ruby cheek, white neck and raven hair;
Four youths protect her from the circling throng,
And like the Nymph the Goddess steps along,
O’er him she waves her serpent wreathed wand,
Cheers with her voice and raises with her hand
Warms with rekindling bloom his visage wan,
And charms the shapeless monster into man.
– Digitalis, From Botanic Garden, Part 2, Canto 2 (emphasis added)
Centuries later the cardiac glycosides have been grouped into a class of chemicals called Digoxins. Digoxins seem to promote the intercellular exchange of sodium and calcium, which is vital to normal heart function and optimal heart health. There are more complicated chemistry exchanges among our cells with Digoxins, but to my non-medical mind it seems the dosages are important, as with any herbs or prescription medicines.
Back to Oregon
My particular fetish for foxglove is a relatively new phenomenon and it has nothing to do with heart health. My wife, Tracy, and I own some boutique inn properties on the Oregon Coast and we drive on the Sunset Highway to the beach nearly every week. The road over the Coast Range rises to 2,000 feet and during the summer foxgloves bloom with great profusion. Starting in May each year, the long stemmed spires and distinctive purple flowers show up in great numbers near the areas where trees have been cut, wind storms have ravaged the canopy, or fires have scorched the landscape. They bloom all summer long, and the higher the altitude the longer the blooms seem to last. Some plants send up branches after the main spire stops blooming, which keeps the flowers full of hummingbirds and bees for many months. Foxgloves must be very hardy plants, because they are among the first flowers to propagate in these distressed forest margins and they seem to thrive on the windswept hilltops overlooking Saddle Mountain, Neahkahnie Mountain, and Tillamook Head.
Foxgloves bloom either annually (every summer) or bi-annually (every other summer). The more plants I have in my garden, the better the probability of lush flowering foxgloves that season. I have driven or run to the top of the local ridges in the early spring, just after the snow melts, and pulled the plants by hand, tap root and all. Foxgloves grow in soft soil, often where the roots of the dead trees have started to rot, leaving soft, rich mulch for the next generation of plants to spread and germinate. I collect the plants by the bucket-full, the pocket-full, or the hand-full nearly every time I run up the old Lewis & Clark Road from Seaside. The owner of the property where I picked the plants is Weyerhaeuser Corp. By my simple and biased logic, since the foresters are busy slashing, cutting, and hauling away the trees, I figure they wouldn’t miss some small plants that are growing near the decaying stumps.
Carrying the delicate plants to our gardens in Portland and Gearhart, I have planted them in our garden carefully positioning them for a good window view as they root, grow and mature. I have probably harvested dozens of plants over the years. It is fun to plant them, water them, watch over them, enjoy them as they flower, and spread their seeds in the fall. My obsession seems insignificant, but I am still breaking the law. If I were to be arrested and thrown in jail, I think of myself like Arlo Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant: next to the mother rapists and father stabbers, picking flowers seems pretty tame. My shame and embarrassment soon dissipates when I see those stalks shoot up and the petals getting ready to flower. They are my favorites to witness opening up and seeing bumble bees attempt a landing.
A few weeks ago, despite my self-delusional arguments to the contrary, I was feeling guilty about my obsession and decided to “come clean” with our plant experts at the local flower shop in Gearhart, Oregon. I asked Pam Fleming, the owner of The Back Alley Gardens, what it was like behind bars for stealing native foxglove. To my delight and surprise she said, “A woman recently came to my shop asking if we carry native digitalis. She claimed that certain varieties of digitalis purpurea were ‘invasive species.’” Pam said she went to a website monitored by the US Department of Agriculture and discovered that the native foxglove may soon be on the endangered species list. As a result Pam changed vendors, seeking some Oregon native digitalis varieties, not deemed invasive.
When I think of invasive plant species, my mind rushes to Kudzu or Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) or English Ivy. These fast growing, water sucking and tree choking plants have no natural predators and are legendary as far as damage to native species and the environment goes. They were introduced to the States and they have been feared, hated ever since. Eradication has proven nearly impossible without collateral damage. But Foxglove?
Apparently the recently imported varieties of digitalis purpurea are winning the pollination derby with the native varieties. The USDA fears that the imported and hybridized foxgloves are crowding out the native populations in the Northwest. I asked Pam Fleming what else she knew, and she said that I may inadvertently be saving the native species by planting stolen foxgloves in my backyard. If I have the genetics riddle solved correctly, I deserve a medal, not handcuffs, for my gardening efforts. With a self-congratulatory pat on the back, I momentarily felt exonerated for the hours of labor and loving care I had given the plants over the years.
A good friend of mine, Arch McCallum, who knows all-things-botanical, had a different view from the statements that Pam had researched from the USDA. He also gave me the feeling of exoneration, but for a different reason. Even though I was trespassing, Arch said, “I think you are innocent in the eyes of the law. As for foxglove, I’m pretty sure pretty sure all foxgloves are descended from the ones in Europe, considering that the entire genus is native to the Old World and invasive species are not protected. I suspect that ‘native foxglove’ is just an informal trade name for Penstemon, or one of the other members of the snapdragon family that look somewhat like foxglove. One of them is named Penstemon digitalis.” By the way, Arch is not my lawyer, but an ornithologist and naturalist. It is right to be thankful for his in-depth knowledge. Phew!
Examples of Penstemon digitalis
One recent Foxglove story worth further exploration came from Dr. Bruce Bolton, who said he had researched Foxglove and discovered that it was prescribed to Vincent Van Gogh when he was in an asylum in France. His visual hallucinations were brought on by the drug and gave his vision the view he recreated in Starry Night That is worth another look!
So the moral of the story is: Fall in love with plants that are native species FIRST.
The corollary would be: If you have a passion for non-native species, MOVE.
Or as an alternative you can go out there in the woods and find some native species you like and call them your own. Better yet, avoid trespassing and encourage your local garden shop to carry only native species. Then you can spend the hours roaming the aisles and finding the one that give you a year-round kick-in-your-step. It is worth the discovery.
My favorite flower obsession remains with Foxglove.