This attractive flower grows wild all over the UK and can be seen growing along hedgerows and in woodland clearings. Foxgloves are wild, but they also look great in the garden, especially when grown in beautiful ornamental pots. Foxgloves are known for their bright pink bell-shaped flowers although they are sometimes seen in white or purple and they are also remarkably easy to grow, making them a favourite for the garden enthusiast. You may already have Foxgloves in your life, or you may be thinking of growing some of these beautiful wildflowers and wondering… are Foxgloves Poisonous to touch? You may have heard loads of horror stories saying how dangerous they are, and they may be true, but they are not all bad, are they?

Purple Foxgloves
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Are Foxgloves Poisonous to Touch?

Yes, Foxgloves can be poisonous to touch and many people experience skin irritation or severe allergic reactions after handling them. An equal number of people feel no ill effect at all after touching foxgloves, but that does not make them safe as the toxins can be transferred into the body through open wounds or if you rub your eyes. We always advise wearing gloves when handling them but if you do touch them by mistake, wash your hands immediately. It is better to be safe than sorry!

Foxgloves: Beautiful But Deadly – Garden Doctor

What are Foxgloves?

Foxgloves (Digitalis) are biennial or short-lived perennial flowers that bloom throughout the summer months. They are a haven for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies due to the volume of sweet nectar that they produce. Digitalis purpurea is not the only species of foxglove (As of 2017, Plants of the World Online recognises the following 27 species and a number of hybrids – Wikipedia) but purpurea is the most common. Foxgloves tubular flowers all grow from the central stem or spike and they grow in well-drained slightly acidic soil and do well in partial shade, especially in hotter climates.

Foxgloves are a native species in Europe and North Africa and although they have naturalised in North America, over there they are considered an invasive species.

Purple Bell Shaped Foxglove Flowerhead
Purple Bell Shaped Foxglove Flowerhead

What Toxins Do Foxgloves Contain?

Foxgloves, belonging to the genus Digitalis, are both captivating in appearance and potent in their chemical composition. The most significant toxin in foxgloves is Digoxin, a cardiac glycoside. This molecule, due to its unique structure, can disrupt the electrolyte balance in heart cells, leading to pronounced cardiac effects. But Digoxin isn’t the sole concern. Foxgloves also house other compounds like digitoxin and deslanoside, which, similar to Digoxin, can impact the heart and other bodily systems upon ingestion or skin contact.

What Happens If I Touch Foxgloves?

If you touch foxgloves, you should immediately wash your hands with warm soapy water as the toxins can be absorbed through the skin and cause anaphylaxis (allergic reaction). When you touch a foxglove, you may notice:

No Immediate Reaction

For many people, simply touching the foxglove plant might not result in any immediate or noticeable reaction. The skin acts as a barrier, preventing most external substances from entering the body.

Skin Irritation

Some individuals might experience mild skin irritation, such as redness, itching, or a rash. This can be due to a sensitivity to the plant’s natural chemicals or a mild allergic reaction.

Transfer of Toxins

If you touch your face, especially your mouth or eyes, after handling foxgloves without washing your hands, there’s a risk of transferring some of the plant’s toxins. This can lead to symptoms like a bitter or spicy taste in the mouth, blurred vision, or even more severe reactions if ingested.

Heightened Sensitivity

People who have been previously exposed to foxgloves or have certain skin conditions might have a heightened sensitivity, leading to more pronounced skin reactions upon contact.

Systemic Effects

While rare, if the toxins from the plant enter the bloodstream, either through open wounds or excessive handling, they can lead to systemic effects. Symptoms might include nausea, dizziness, and in severe cases, cardiac disturbances.

Wild Foxgloves at the Side of a Footpath
Wild Foxgloves at the Side of a Footpath

What To Do If Someone Eats Foxgloves?

If someone eats foxgloves, or mistakenly brews a tea from the plant, they should immediately seek medical attention as even the smallest amount of foxglove ingested can be fatal.

  1. Stay Calm: Panic can exacerbate the situation. Ensure the person is safe and try to keep them calm as well.
  2. Remove Any Remaining Plant Material: If there are any remnants of the plant in the person’s mouth, gently remove them to prevent further ingestion.
  3. Do Not Induce Vomiting: It might seem like a good idea to get the plant out of the system, but inducing vomiting can be harmful. The toxins could cause more damage on the way back up, or the person could choke.
  4. Seek Immediate Medical Attention: Call emergency services or take the person to the nearest hospital. If possible, bring a sample or a photo of the foxglove plant with you. This can help medical professionals identify the plant and provide appropriate treatment.
  5. Provide Information: Inform the medical team about the amount ingested, the time of ingestion, and any symptoms the person is experiencing.
  6. Stay with the Person: Symptoms of foxglove poisoning can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, and visual disturbances. It’s essential to monitor the person and relay any changes to medical professionals.
  7. Prevention: After the immediate crisis has been addressed, consider taking steps to prevent future incidents. This might include removing foxgloves from accessible areas, especially if children or pets are present, or clearly labelling the plant as toxic.
Foxglove Flower Spike
Foxglove Flower Spike

What are the Symptoms of Foxglove Poisoning?

Foxglove poisoning is known as Digitalism and the toxins can enter the body through absorption or ingestion. Foxglove poisoning can play havoc with the heart and can cause an irregular heartbeat, either making it too fast or too slow depending on your heart health. Other symptoms of foxglove ingestion may be diarrhoea, vomiting, loss of appetite, decreased energy levels, confusion, blurred vision, and changes in colour perception.

Note: If you are suffering any of these symptoms or think you may be experiencing digitalism (foxglove poisoning) – SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY!

Is it Safe to Grow Foxgloves at Home?

Due to their beauty, foxgloves are often grown as ornamental flowers in pots or as a border plant and as we mentioned, they are very attractive to pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Foxgloves are safe to grow at home provided young children are made aware not to touch them and especially not to eat them. If you cannot guarantee that children will not touch or eat them, it is best to grow them out of reach or even not at all.

Are Foxgloves Poisonous to Pets?

Foxgloves are also poisonous to animals such as dogs and cats, but it is unlikely that they will eat them due to the foul bitter taste. Again though, if you have animals that do fancy eating your garden plants, we recommend not growing foxgloves at all.

Pistil of a Foxglove Flower
Pistil of a Foxglove Flower

History of Foxgloves and Medicine

The foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, has played a pivotal role in the annals of medical history, evolving from a folk remedy to a cornerstone of modern cardiology.

Ancient Uses

Foxgloves have been known since ancient times, with early herbalists and healers using them for a variety of ailments. The plant’s medicinal properties were often shrouded in folklore and mysticism.

17th Century

By the 1600s, renowned herbalists like Nicholas Culpeper began documenting the use of foxgloves. In his guide, “The English Physician,” he mentioned foxgloves as a remedy for ailments like dropsy, a condition we now recognize as edema.

18th Century

The late 1700s marked a turning point for foxgloves in medicine. Dr. William Withering, an English physician, conducted systematic studies on the plant. In 1785, he published “An Account of the Foxglove,” where he detailed the therapeutic effects of foxglove extract for heart conditions. However, he also highlighted the challenges of determining the correct dosage, given the thin line between therapeutic and toxic amounts.

19th to 20th Century

With the advent of modern pharmacology, the active compound responsible for foxglove’s heart-stimulating properties was identified as Digoxin. This discovery paved the way for the development of standardized dosages and formulations, making the treatment safer and more effective.

21st Century

Today, while the use of natural foxglove extracts has diminished, synthetic versions of Digoxin are widely used in cardiology. The drug is prescribed for conditions like atrial fibrillation and heart failure. The journey of foxgloves from garden plants to pharmaceutical staples underscores the importance of traditional knowledge and its role in shaping modern medicine.

White Foxgloves
White Foxgloves

Conclusion

Foxgloves are certainly beautiful, but they are also extremely deadly and while foxgloves are poisonous to touch, they are even more so if they are ingested. With the wonders of modern-day medicine, we have been able to use the toxins for our own benefit and the toxins have been refined into an important heart medication. If you want to grow foxgloves, you should do so safely, take care when handling them, wear gloves and keep them out of reach of young children who may decide to try and snack on the flower.

Dangers of Foxgloves Infographic

Garden Doctor Tips

“Always wear gloves when handling Foxgloves, even if you do not have sensitive skin, the toxins are easily transferred elsewhere including your eyes and mouth!”

“If you or anyone else ingests foxgloves, seek medical attention immediately. Foxgloves are particularly dangerous and are known to be fatal!”

“If you have young children, grow foxgloves in raised beds that are too high to reach and deadhead before seeding occurs!”

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to grow foxglove?

Foxglove is not safe around very young children or pets because of its toxicity. If eaten, it can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, confusion, seizures, and even death. So please keep foxglove plants away from areas where children or pets might be able to access them.

Is Foxglove poisonous to humans?

Although foxglove poisoning is rare, foxgloves are extremely toxic to humans and many animals when ingested. If you or anyone else ingests foxgloves, seek medical attention immediately.

Is it safe to have foxgloves in my garden?

Foxgloves are extremely poisonous but are safe to grow provided you take precautions. Keep foxgloves away from young children and pets that may try and eat them and you should wear gloves when handling them.

Are foxgloves poisonous to touch UK?

Foxgloves in the UK are poisonous to touch and will often cause skin irritation. It is recommended that you wear gloves when handling them to prevent the toxins from being transferred elsewhere but if you do touch them, you should wash your hands at once. Foxgloves are at their most potent if ingested and if this happens, seek medical attention.

What part of foxglove is poisonous to dogs?

The whole of the foxglove plant is poisonous to dogs. This included the leaves, stems, seeds, and roots. Diarrhoea and vomiting are symptoms of foxglove poisoning in dogs.

Can you die from foxglove?

Foxgloves can be fatal if ingested. Even a small quantity can be extremely dangerous and you should seek medical assistance if you have ingested foxgloves of any kind.

How much foxglove is fatal?

Although it is extremely unlikely that you will die from touching foxgloves, ingesting them is another matter entirely. Just a couple of grams is all that is needed to cause a fatality if not treated immediately.

Is it OK to touch foxgloves?

Foxgloves are poisonous to touch and although you may not experience a reaction, you could easily transfer the toxins to your eyes, mouth or an open wound. Always wear gloves when handling foxgloves.

Should I get rid of foxglove?

If you have young children or pets, it is not a good idea to have foxgloves around. The poisons can be particularly dangerous when ingested but can also be absorbed through the skin.

Can you get sick from handling foxglove?

Yes, it is possible to get sick from handling foxglove. All parts of the foxglove plant are highly toxic, containing a number of chemicals called cardiac glycosides that can cause serious health problems if ingested or absorbed through the skin.

Is foxglove poisonous to humans?

Yes, foxglove is poisonous to humans. The plant contains cardiac glycosides that can cause a range of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, and even death in severe cases.

Should I remove foxglove from my garden?

If you have small children or pets that may accidentally ingest or come into contact with foxglove, it may be wise to remove it from your garden. However, if you take appropriate precautions and handle the plant with care, it can be a beautiful addition to a garden.

Should you wear gloves when handling foxgloves?

Yes, it is recommended to wear gloves when handling foxgloves, as the plant’s toxic compounds can be absorbed through the skin. Long sleeves and pants are also recommended to prevent skin contact.

Are foxgloves OK as cut flowers?

Foxgloves can make beautiful cut flowers, but it’s important to handle them with care and avoid contact with the toxic sap. Wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after handling the plant and avoid touching your face or mouth while handling it. Keep the cut flowers away from children and pets, as well.


Author

Trevor Wright is not just a seasoned horticulturist; he’s the esteemed Garden Doctor. With a BSc in Horticulture and years of hands-on experience in the soil, Trevor has become a trusted mentor for all things gardening. As the founder of Garden Doctor, he’s committed to clarifying the intricacies of gardening, offering straightforward advice that’s rooted in years of practice. His writing is a garden of how-tos, savvy insights, and comprehensive guides that enable individuals to nurture and grow their garden dreams. When he’s not knee-deep in garden beds, Trevor is at his keyboard passing on his green-thumbed wisdom to budding gardeners, ensuring that the legacy of sustainable and joyful gardening blossoms far and wide.


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