Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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, 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 poisonous properties.

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.

False 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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