The medicinal power of digitalis or foxglove

Foxglove is a perennial plant that almost everyone knows. He grows up spontaneously among the stones in the cities. You can also find it in forests. It is used as an ornamental plant because it is a pleasant plant to look at. The flowers, which bloom from May to October, are usually magenta pink but can have many more colors and they bloom around the center stem. The white digitalis is a rare plant in the Netherlands. The plant has medicinal value, despite being a very poisonous and inedible plant. It often happens that a poisonous plant has medicinal properties in minute concentrations. Because the plant contains many cardioglycosides, it is used in phytotherapy for cardiovascular problems. NB! This article is written from the personal view of the author and may contain information that is not scientifically substantiated and/or in line with the general view.

Botanical drawing digitalis / Source: Kilom691, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)


  • Digitalis in earlier times
  • Naming
  • Active substances
  • Digitalis, good for heart problems
  • Regular medicine
  • Safety digitalis

Digitalis in earlier times

People used to tell each other that fairies wore the flowers of this medicinal plant as hats. The plant is said to greet all supernatural beings. The plant was seen as a witch’s plant; there was an ingredient in witches’ ointment. A digitalis in the house would make the milk sour. When a witch wanted to control someone, she would persuade the victim to wear a cross made of hawthorn thorns with a thimble flower stuck on it. Foxglove was first mentioned as a medicinal herb around the year 1000. At first it was only used to cover wounds. The first internal use was mentioned around 1750; that was with edema. William Wilthering, an English botanist, was the first to describe the medical effects of digitalis on edema and also noted that it also had an effect on the pulse rate. Nowadays the plant is mainly used for heart conditions.


The Latin name of digitalis is Digitalis purpurea . In Dutch, in addition to common foxglove, this plant is also called Poppeschoen, Snakeflower, Judasbeurs, Pijpskop, Pijpenkop and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Gandschoen. Digitalis is a combination of the Latin words ‘digit’ and ‘alis’ which literally means ‘finger’ and ‘wings’. Purpurea refers to the magenta color that is referred to in Dutch as ‘purple’ with a somewhat outdated word.

Active substances

Only the leaf of digitalis is used. The leaves are stripped of the petioles and dried. The wild plants have more toxins or medicinal substances in them than cultivated versions. The leaves mainly contain digitalis glycosides A, B and E. It also contains digitoxigenin, gitoxin and glucogitaloxin. In addition to Digitalis purpurea, Digitalis lanata is also used. This plant has a slightly different content; it contains dixogine, acetyldigitoxin, acetylgitoxin and acetylgitaloxine.

  • Digitalis purpurea works after one to four hours with a peak between eight and 14 hours.
  • Digitalis lanata works after half to two hours, with a peak between two and six hours.

Digitalis, good for heart problems

In phytotherapy, the use of digitalis has almost completely been abandoned, but it is still used in homeopathy and regular medicine. Both Digitalis purpurea and Digitalis lanata are poisonous plants. You cannot experiment with it yourself because the therapeutic amount is close to the toxic value. Therefore, it should only be used under doctor’s supervision. It is rarely used by naturopaths. The cardioglycosides in digitalis increase the contractile force of the heart muscle. As a result, more blood is pumped per heartbeat. For this reason, the plant is sometimes used in patients with heart weakness. In addition, digitalis provides more

Digitalis / Source: Nevit Dilmen, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

regular heart rhythm.

  • Atrial fibrillation or atrial fibrillation,
  • Cardiac arrhythmias or supraventricular tachycardia,
  • Cardiac insufficiency or heart weakness.

Regular medicine

Digoxin from foxglove is the main active substance of the drug lanoxin marketed by Aspen pharma. In other words: digitalis is one of the many medicinal plants from traditional medicine that has found its way into regular medicine. In the Netherlands, 25,000 patients used digoxin in 2013.

Safety digitalis

In phytotherapy, doctors see the dangers of the cumulative effect of the toxic components of digitalis. Overdose can have an adverse effect because it can cause serious cardiac arrhythmias and even cardiac arrest. Less serious side effects include: nausea and vomiting. Pharmaceutical digitalis preparations are safer to work with. If you do decide to start using digitalis, only do so on the prescription of a doctor. More safe alternatives for phytotherapy are: lily of the valley and sea onion.