Foxgloves are the epitome of not only the cottage garden but also our coastal walks, woodland edges and many more spots in between. It is almost August as I write and the time for this year’s foxgloves is edging towards the moment when the last seeds have been shed and the plants wilt. June is the month when these elegant plants are at their best wherever you are in Norfolk or indeed, anywhere else in most parts of the UK. Beautiful to the eye, but poisonous to the unwary – yet life-saving when used for good. Foxgloves have a long-held and fascinating place in our natural history.
There have been many suggestions for the derivation of the name “foxglove” for Folklorists have long been divided on where the common name for Digitalis Purpurea comes from. It is, in fact, an ancient name that goes back to at least the time of Edward III (1327-1377). Probably, the prefix ‘fox‘ derived from the “folks”, who to our 14th century ancestors were the fairies; to explicitly speak of them as such was believed to get their attention and cause them to be mischievous! To others, the plant is known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. There again, the word “glove” may have come from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, or ‘gliew’, being a ring of bells or the name for a musical instrument consisting of many small bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; their sound being a spell of protection against hunters and hounds. Putting the two words together gives us “Fairy Bells”.
Whilst the name ‘Foxglove’ is the English common name we all recognise and love the plant by, there have been, and are, a whole host of alternative common names used throughout the UK which reflect the association with fairies; names such as: Fairy Caps, Fairy Gloves, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Herb, Fairy Bells, Fairy-fingers, Goblin Gloves, Fairy Petticoats, Fairy Weed. Another name, ‘Dead Man’s Bells’ serves to warn of the plant’s poisonous disposition. On the other hand, the names Flopdock, Floppydock, Flop-a-Dock, Flapdock, Popdock, Flop-poppy, Flop-top, Cowflop, Gooseflops, Rabbit’s Flowers or Bunny Rabbits all allude to the foxglove’s large soft downy leaves, on a plant that thrives in acidic soils in a wide range of habitats. In the first-year of the Foxglove’s cycle, large downy basal leaves are produced, followed in the second year by impressive flowery spikes that extend to any height between about 3 to 6 feet tall. The plants die once they have seeded, but if the flowers are picked before they go to seed, the basal leaves will last another year and they will attempt to seed again. Foxglove flowers open first at the base of the stem and then graduates upwards followed by the appearance and development of the seed-heads below. Three basic colours self-seed – white, pink and purple. Colours generally come true to the parent plant where plants are isolated, but they cross-pollinate freely and many large groups of foxgloves include all three shades.
Foxglove is the source of digitalis, a plant that is beautiful on the outside but toxic at its heart with all parts of the plant poisonous. It derives from several cardiac glycosides produced by the plant, and widely used as a heart medication. Basically, and without being too technical, it regulates the heartbeat. However, The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” puts it this way:
“Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.”
The use of Digitalis purpurea extract containing cardiac glycosides for the treatment of heart conditions was first described in English language medical literature by William Withering, in 1785. It is said that this ‘proper’ English doctor only made this discovery after he was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.
It has also been said that with careful usage and expert pharmaceutical guidance, doctors have successfully used digitalis and saved thousands of lives, but it is at the same time a dangerously toxic plant which, if used wrongly, can cause heart palpitations, delirium, hallucinations, vomiting and possibly death. This powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times and botanist and writer, Bobby J. Ward, has written of early foxglove use in his excellent book ‘A Contemplation Upon Flowers’:
“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful
maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.
“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejewelled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”
Traditional Folk Medicine:
According the Theresa Green: Modern-day herbalists have largely abandoned the use of digitalis because of its narrow therapeutic index and the difficulty of determining the amount of active drug in herbal preparations. Once the usefulness of digitalis in regulating the human pulse was understood, it was employed for a variety of purposes, including the treatment of epilepsy and other seizure disorders, which are now considered to be inappropriate treatments.
The Doctrine of Signatures, dating from the time of Dioscorides and Galen, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of those body parts. Foxglove flowers, for instance, were supposed to look like an animal’s open mouth; within the doctrine of signatures this meant it must have some medicinal value in treatment of injuries of the mouth and throat. The speckles in the mouth of the flower were, according to the Doctrine symbolic of inflammation of the throat. Another array of folk-names reflects foxglove’s association with the mouth: Throatwort, Rabbit’s Mouth, Bunny Mouths, Tiger’s Mouth, Duck’s Mouth, Gap-Mouth, & Dragon’s Mouth. Another, less charming name of Scabbit Dock came about as in Culpepper’s day Foxglove was used in an ointment or shampoo for treating impetigo or “scabby head”.
Mythology and legends:
One story has it that fairies would hide themselves inside the flowers. Mischievous children, wanting to hear fairy thunder, would hold one of the flower bell then strike the other end on their hand. The poor fairy, rightly upset and probably rather cross, would make a snapping sound, a clap of fairy thunder, while she escaped from her retreat.
Another legend, believed to be Welsh – but certainly from the West Country, explains why foxgloves bend and sway so gracefully, even when there is no wind. We are told that this has nothing to do with the elements but that, as the flower is sacred to the fairies, it has the power of recognising them, and indeed all spiritual beings, and that it bows in deference to them as they pass by. Should you therefore find yourself amongst swaying Foxgloves, it is quite possible that you have Fairies for company – and this is not the end of the possibilities! In the opinion of Terri Windling: fairies can also be attracted into your domestic garden – by planting foxgloves there. Terri also believes that dew collected from the foxglove blossom can used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic.
They say that in the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason; not forgetting that the leaves were considered as a cure for Scarlet Fever. There again, picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance! In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars.
The plant has been particularly associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since. This association with midwifery probably also gave rise to the names Granny’s Gloves or Granny’s Bonnets, and Witch’s or Witches’ Gloves. So called Witches and Grannies, or at least Midwives and other herbal practitioners, had many uses for the foxglove plant. Association does not stop there; there is a connection with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary, and. in the earliest recordings of the ‘Language of Flowers’, foxgloves symbolised riddles, conundrums, and secrets. However, we are told that by the time the Victorian era came along, they had been devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
Foxgloves in English Literature:
Theresa Green states that at least two great poets, Wordsworth and Tennyson, were moved to immortalise the foxglove in words; the former clearly aware of the deadly qualities of the plant. In ‘The Borderers’, a tragedy, a woman describes a dream she had:
“My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:
When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die.”
Also by William Wordsworth (from ‘The Prelude’)
Through quaint obliquities I might pursue
These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one
Upwards through every stage of the tall stem
Had shed beside the public way its bells…..
Tennyson named the flower in the poem ‘In Memoriam’ –
” ………Bring orchis, bring the foxglove spire…”
and also, in ‘The Two Voices’ –
” ….The foxglove cluster dappled bells …”
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