Plants vs Pills – An Internet Myth

I’m going to start a new category for debunking internet myths.

This first entry has to do with foxglove, and the myth that plant-based medicine is automatically better than manufactured medicine.

Foxglove is a lovely plant with beautiful tall flower spikes. Folklore said a tea made from it can be useful for heart problems and folklore was right. Foxglove contains digitalis which affects the heart’s rhythm.

Since it’s natural, you might think foxglove tea would be a better medicine than manufactured pills that contain digitalis, right? Nope. Not at all.

Digitalis is toxic except in very small amounts. It should be administered only to people who will benefit from it and only in tightly controlled doses. In the plant, the amount of digitalis varies widely and unpredictably, from plant to plant and over time. Sometimes, it doesn’t have much digitalis at all. At other times, it can have so much that gardeners are advised to wear gloves when handling it so they don’t absorb it through their skin.

The plant’s folklore reputation was useful to science as it lead doctors to test it. They found it does manufacture chemicals that are helpful as a medicine. If you have a heart condition, take it in pill form as prescribed by your doctor. Stay away from a tea made at home from any part of the plant. Digitalis tea shows up in more than one murder mystery because it’s effective at killing people when misused.

Remember – plants are potent, solar-powered chemical factories with their own agenda. There is nothing magical about using them for medicine and they have the disadvantage of uncontrolled levels of chemicals.

Drink dandelion tea for the nutrients? Absolutely, if it hasn’t been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Plants can be healthful.

Drink foxglove tea to help your congestive heart failure? You may not survive the experiment. Plants can be poisonous.

More information

March 15, 2019

internet myth digitalis purpureum

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Illustration from Medical Botany (1836) by John Stephenson and James Morss Churchill.


This page was styled using Bleeding Hearts Texture Series

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