"The foxglove on fair Flora's hand is worn,
Here is yet another lovely flower rich in history and legends! The Foxglove has gone by many quaint names in the European countries to which it is native. In the British Isles, it was called Folk's Glove, Fairy's Glove, Fairy Thimbles, and Fairy Cap. It was believed that the fairies take refuge in the blossoms whenever a human footstep is heard approaching. There was also a superstition that picking the flowers would bring bad luck, since it robbed the "wee folk" of their favorite hiding place. It is said that when the Foxglove bends and sways so gracefully, it is really bowing to the fairies passing by, and has nothing to do with the breezes. The spots inside the flowers were supposed to be the fingerprints of elves and, according to one Irish legend, are a warning of the plant's poisonous properties, which also earned it the name of "Dead Man's Thimbles".
Parkinson writes: "Wee call them generally in English, Foxeglove; but some (as thinking it to bee too foolish a name) doe call them Finger-flowers, because they are like unto the fingers of a glove, the ends cut off". There is some uncertainty about how it came to be called Foxglove. One explanation is that it is a corruption of Folk's Glove, which is indeed one of its oldest names. And, yet another legend says that bad fairies gave it to the fox to put on his toes, that he might prowl around the hen houses silently. But others think that the original Anglo-Saxon word was probably not Foxes-glofa (Fox-glove), but rather Foxes-gleow (Fox-bell), after an old musical instrument with bells hung on an arches support, which the plant resembles.
The Norwegians did call it Revbielde, or Foxbell. One Norse legend tells how foxes wear the flowers as bells around their necks to escape the hunters, who are frightened away by the eerie sound.
In France, it was known as Gant de Notre Dame (Gloves of Our Lady) and Doigts de la Vierge (Virgin's Fingers). In Germany, it was called simply, Fingerhut (Thimble), and Leonhard Fuchs (the 16th century German botanist after whom Fuchsia is named), gave the Foxglove its Latin name Digitalis, from Digitabulum, which means, "a thimble".
Although it is a "violent poison", the Foxglove has long been used medicinally. In 1554, Dodoens prescribed it boiled in wine as an expectorant, and the bruised leaves were often used for sores and ulcers. Mrs. Grieve notes that "it seems to have been in frequent use in cases in which the practitioners of the present day would consider it highly dangerous". The Foxglove's true usefulness was discovered by Dr. William Withering (1741-1799), who tells the story in his wonderful Account of the Foxglove (1785). To summarize it briefly, in 1775, he learned about an old woman in Shropshire who had a secret remedy which had cured patients suffering from the dropsy (and old word for edema, causes by heart failure) when doctors' treatments had failed. This remedy was made up of about 20 herbs, but Dr. Withering realized that the active ingredient was none other than Foxglove. After much experimenting, he came to the conclusion that Digitalis purpurea "merited more attention than modern practice had bestowed upon it". His valuable discovery is still used today.
"The Foxglove leaves, with caution given,
Another proof of favouring Heaven
Will happily display.
The rapid pulse it can abate,
The hectic flush can moderate.
And blest by Him whose will is fate,
May give a lengthened day!"
Last summer, after handling my Foxglove plants and unconsciously touching my face, I noticed a very bitter taste and afterwards had a mild headache, with dizziness and nausea. I would be interested to know if anyone else has noticed this after working around their Foxgloves, but I wouldn't recommend experimenting!
Mrs. Grieve writes that "In large doses, the action of Digitalis on the circulation will cause various cerebral symptoms, such as seeing all objects blue, and various other disturbances of the special senses". More severe cases of poisoning can be fatal.
Foxglove is truly the "pride of the garden". It is a biennial, but will often persist as a short-lived perennial. It will also self-sow wherever it is happy, and a single plant can produce more than one million seeds! It is beloved by bees, and Mrs. Grieve observes that it is "much visited by other smaller insects, who may be seen taking refuge from the cold and wet in its drooping blossoms on chilly evenings". In the wild and in older cultivars, the flowers bloom on one side of he stem only, but there are now many hybrids which have flowers all the ways around the stalk (and often in rather gaudy colors, too). I love the old kinds best, and my favorite is the soft-colored "Apricot Beauty". In A Woman's Hardy Garden, Mrs. Ely suggests planting Foxgloves behind Sweet Williams or with peonies, where they will "produce an effect so beautiful that you will simply have to go and look at them many times a day".
A cottage garden certainly should not be without the beautiful Foxglove, and one cannot have too many of them, in my opinion!
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading. I also blog for Heirloom Gardener.