Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 5, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

The other day I was exploring a logging road deep in a moist, shadowy, steep-walled valley in nearby El Dorado National Forest. At the head of the valley next to a stream in a deeply shaded glen there stood in a shaft of brilliant light a yard-high plant as vividly on display as any I have ever seen. It was a biennial with a vigorous leafy spike of drooping, ghostly, white, cigar-stub-size flowers arising from an ample rosette of last year's outward-arching basal leaves.

The effect was like something from a Wagnerian opera, like finding a Parsifalian arm thrust skyward from a nest of oversized laurel leaves, the tender fist grasping a radiantly white, blossoming sword.

On the one hand I knew I'd never seen a plant exactly like this, yet, on the other, something about it was profoundly familiar. Once I began analyzing the flower structure I knew why: During my years of heavy-duty backpacking in the mountains of southern Germany and Austria I lumbered by untold hundreds of thousands of this species. It was the "Fingerhut," in English known as Foxglove, DIGITALIS PURPUREA. In German forests, at least in the mountainous south, Foxglove is abundant in moist soil along forest roads and in mountain meadows. It's like lupines here and magnolias in Mississippi: To me, Foxgloves simply mean German woods-wandering.

Wild, natural Foxgloves in Europe bear purplish flowers, not white. However, Foxgloves make fine garden plantings so horticulturalists have developed any number of curious and beautiful strains, including a white-flowered form such as the one at http://hiking.adampaul.com/gallery/alamere03/image38.html.

A picture showing the more typical purplish blossoms is at a website about North America's invasive weeds at http://www.invasive.org/images/768x512/1261101.jpg.

That day it was impossible for me to regard that gorgeous, spooky plant as just another weed. Its perfect placement in a shaft of light at the valley head was uncanny. Its dignified presence and unrestrained robustness gave me the sensation of being in the presence of a superior being. And then, of course, there was the matter of the plant's medicinal value.

For, extract from second-year growth of Foxglove has long been known as powerful medicine. When people with arrhythmic heartbeats "take their digitalis," they're taking the stuff of Foxglove. Digitalis medicine goes by such names as digitoxin or digoxin, or by brand names such as Lanoxin and Purgoxin. Since one side-effect of taking digitalis is loss of appetite, some people have abused the drug for weight-loss purposes. Knowing how digitalis affects the heart, that seems like a pretty reckless weight- loss strategy.

In fact, most modern herbalists steer away from using Foxglove extract because it's too hard to judge how much active ingredient is present in herbal preparations. Foxglove is too powerful to fool with.

I think I would have come to the same conclusion not even knowing about its medicinal value -- just by seeing the plant so self-possessed there in the dazzling beam of light in the shadowy mountain glen that day.