The Figwort Family
Nature Bulletin No. 564-A April 26, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE FIGWORT FAMILY
The Figwort Family, also known as the Foxglove Family, includes
many plants with such strikingly different flowers or such different
habits of growth that they scarcely seem to be relatives. The weirdly
shaped blossoms of several kinds suggest, if you are fanciful, the faces
of animals: some with fearsome open jaws, others with gaping flabby
lips or bulging throats. Hence, among them, there are plants with such
colorful names as Snapdragon, Turtlehead, Monkey Flower, Little
Elephants, Owl's Clover and Pelican Flower.
The Figwort, from which the family gets not only a common name but
also its scientific name, is a woodland plant with inconspicuous flowers
that was once supposed to possess a cure for scrofula. Most members of
this family have bitter juice; and several do have medicinal, narcotic or
The large oval leaves of the cultivated Foxglove yield digitalis, most
valuable of heart medicines because it is better than any other for
stimulating the action of heart muscles in cases of partial heart failure.
It has attractive racemes of many tubular flowers, from white to red or
purple in color.
Approximately 3000 species of this family are known. About 40 are
native to the Chicago region and 10, introduced from foreign countries,
have gone wild and become naturalized. The largest of these is Mullein,
so common and conspicuous in pastures, waste places, and along
roadsides. In its first summer, a seedling produces a rosette of large
woolly grayish-green leaves which endure and hold their color
throughout the following winter. In the second season it shoots up a
stout leafy stalk, often as tall as a man. The topmost foot or two is
packed with hundreds of buds which, after midsummer and
progressively upward from the bottom, open into small yellow flowers.
Each is followed by a capsule with an abundance of tiny seeds often
eaten by goldfinches.
Mullein has about 40 folk names such as Aaron's Rod, Peter's Staff,
Royal Candle and Flannel Leaf or Velvet Plant. The felt on its leaves
feels soft to the fingers but it is made up of fine prickly hairs which, if
rubbed on your cheek, may make it burn for hours. Farm boys used to
dry and smoke them. Our Bulletin No. 466 -- A relates other interesting
facts about mullein.
Our great grandmothers used to plant a European Figwort called Butter-
and-Eggs, or Toadflax, in their gardens because it bears a tall spike of
rich yellow and orange flowers. It soon escaped, became a weed, and
now grows wild in waste places and sandy soils from coast to coast.
Snapdragon, Kenilworth Ivy, Speedwell and Foxglove are Figworts
cultivated in gardens or indoors.
Foxglove is a late-blooming native woodland plant with lacy fern-
like leaves and five-petalled lemon-yellow flowers that are tubular and
shaped like a bell. It seems to be partial to oaks and may be a parasite
that gets part of its food from the roots of those trees.
Indian Paint Brush or Painted Cup is another Figwort and an oddity of
our original prairies. What appears to be the bloom is really the vividly
colored tips of leaves directly under the blossom -- usually scarlet or
vermilion but sometimes orange or yellow. It, too, is thought to be
partially parasitic on the roots of other plants. A western species is the
state flower of Wyoming.
In our Cook County parade of spring wildflowers is the delicate Blue-
eyed Mary, a Figwort sometimes abundant in moist woodlands. Each
blossom has a white upper lip and a blue lower lip.
We have not been able to find the reason for the name, Figwort.
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Update: June 2012