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flower spotlight: foxglove

Today I wanted to highlight one of the flower superstars of the moment, foxglove!

Foxglove (or less commonly digitalis) is a biennial, meaning that it doesn’t bloom until it’s second year of growth. The flowers we’re cutting now are from some of the very first seeds we started on the farm, back in January of 2020 (simpler times to be sure). It has been a bit of a wait, but it’s been worth it!

The name “foxglove” goes back to roughly a thousand years to Old English, and its origin is thus obscured by folk tales. One story goes that the thimble-like flowers of the plant were worn by foxes on their paws to silence their footsteps, and thus aid in hunting their prey. As some of you may know, foxglove is also highly toxic, which may account for some of its more menacing names such as “witch’s glove” or “witch's finger”.

And make no mistake, foxglove is highly toxic. At its most potent, ingesting as little as 5 grams of fresh foxglove leaf is enough to kill a human. As is often the case though, at the right dose, foxglove can cure instead of kill.

Its use as an herbal medicine goes back to at least the medieval period, and starts to show up in written records in the 1500’s. While its uses have varied over time, its main use today is as the source for the drug Digitalis, which is used to strengthen heart contractions, particularly in patients with cognitive heart failure.

And one last bit of trivia here. One of the side effects of ingesting foxglove is a yellowing of the vision. It’s been speculated that Vincent Van Gogh was prescribed foxglove to treat his epilepsy and this may have influence his “Yellow Period.” Scholars are divided on the issue, and we’ll likely never know for sure.

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