Friday 27 May 2011

The Foxglove

When the foxgloves flowering in the garden caught my attention, I suddenly realised I knew little about this stately plant, apart from the well documented use of digitalis for  relieving heart ailments, so I decided  to explore further, both the natural history and the folklore attached, However I had no idea how little there was to be found, apart from, as I said its well documented but relatively recent use in the treatment of heart disorders.

  The foxglove is a common biennial flower of late spring and early summer here in the UK. It is found in gardens woodlands, hedgerows and waste areas, and as Culpeper adds ‘on dry sandy ground for the most part, and as well as the higher and lower places under the hedge-sides in almost every county of the land.’ So it appears that the foxglove can grow, if needs must, almost anywhere. Although he does indicate that it ‘seldom flowers before July’.  So, me-thinks perhaps the learnĂ©d gentleman is thinking of another plant, or times have changed so very much that the flowering times of plants and its chosen  habitat, have altered dramatically since the early 17th century.
    Known by such names as Dead Man’s Bells, Bloody Cups and Dead Man’s thimbles, which  gives one some idea of the perhaps unfriendly nature of this plant. And then there are the many names associating this plant with the fairies. One of these names, according to Mrs Grieve, is ‘Folksglove- the glove of the ‘good folk’  from  ‘a list of plants in the time of Edward III.’  She also claims that the earliest known form of the name ‘is the Anglo-Saxon foxes glofa (the glove of the fox)
  However it is the plants chemical constituents that have provided it with a notoriety amongst some. According to Michael Jordan (Plants of Mystery and Magic) ‘the plant synthesizes digitalin and other related toxic chemicals known as glycosides which have a cumulative effect on the human body.’ According to Mrs Grieve it is the foxgloves’ leaves, collected in the spring, when green and healthy, that are used to provide the drug used to regulate an irregular heartbeat. She states that ‘In ordinary conditions it takes about twelve hours or more before its effect on the heart muscles is appreciated, and it must thus always be combined with other remedies to tide the patient over this period and never prescribed in large doses at first as some patients are unable to take it, the drug being apt to cause considerable digestive disturbances, varying in different cases. This action is probably due to the Digitonin, an undesirable constituent.’
 Animals appear aware of its toxicity as no passing animal will pause to nibble its lush looking leaves. However the bees appear to love the foxglove as they can be seen vanishing into the trumpets of the flowers on a warm summer’s day. This may perhaps, as some say, make it a favourite of the medieval garden. However, there appears to be very little known of any use medicinally or otherwise pre sixteenth century. According to Mrs Grieve the earliest known descriptions of it are those given in the middle of the sixteenth century by ‘Fuchs and Tragus in their herbals.’ However she does indicate that thirteenth century Welsh physicians did make use of it in their preparations for external use only. She also adds ‘Strangely enough, the Foxglove, so handsome and striking in our landscape, is not mentioned by Shakespeare, or by any of the old English poets. Mrs Grieve tells us that it was ‘Leonhard Fuchs (the well known German herbalist of the sixteenth century,)’ who is said to have employed the ‘Latin adjective Digitalis (from Digitabulum, a thimble)’,  it appears that before that time (1542) it ‘had had no name in either Greek or Latin. 
   Mrs Grieve does indicate regarding its use by the old herbalist, that foxglove was employed in medicine, yet ‘wholly without reference to those valuable properties which render it useful as a remedy in the hands of modern physicians.’ Donald Law in The Concise Herbal Encyclopedia (1973) does say that  ‘boiled leaves in water can be safely used  as a cleansing and antiseptic lotion for washing sores, ulcers and wounds, etc.’ He continues by stating that ‘Some witches used it to produce trances,’ yet doesn’t give a reference for this piece of knowledge. I have just noticed there is not even a bibliography in this book in which I delighted in times past, although the list of books by the same author does include Textbook of Botanic Medicine (8 vols) which has always convinced me that he did know a thing or two. Culpeper that most knowledgeable gentleman,  indicates that ‘The herb is familiarly and frequently used by the Italians to heal any green or fresh wound, and he is also ‘confident that an ointment of it is one of the best remedies for  scabby head that is.’ I will bear that in mind if ever I am plagued with such a thing.

I can find very little mythology concerning the plant, but many on-line sources share a tale from Roman mythology, ‘as Flora showed Hera or Juno how to impregnate herself with no need of a man by touching a foxglove to her belly and her breasts. She either gave birth to Mars or Vulcan from this method, depending on the source,’

Culpeper places the foxglove under the ‘dominion of Venus, being  of a gentle  cleansing nature.’ Not too sure I agree, but may have been acceptable at the time penned. Cunningham also places it under Venus and the ‘Element’ water’, which I should think he probably copied from Culpeper, however Manfred M Manus (The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy) also places the plant under the dominion of Venus, but along with Mercury and Saturn, which makes rather more sense. As  it is the sun that is said to rule the heart,  I would perhaps place this plant to a certain extent under the suns rulership. Although perhaps because the discovery of the plants benefits to the heart is a more recent revelation, it may be worth linking present associations as well as ancient. 
   Cunningham gives its magical use as ‘Protection.’ He goes onto relate how ‘In the past housewives in Wales used the leaves of the foxglove to make a black dye, which they used to paint crossed lines on their cottage’s stone floors, this was done to keep evil from entering the house.’ Whereas Mrs Grieve relates the same tale but differently; she indicates that ‘A domestic use of Foxglove was general throughout North Wales at one time,’ she then tells how it was used to ‘darken the lines of stone floors’ but gives the reason as; ‘This gave them a mosaic-like appearance.’ and indicates that it was more the appearance that prompted this action rather than anything else.  
So all in all, I have been proved so very wrong, there may be rather a lot to be found about the foxglove if only one may find the time to dig deep enough.


  1. The Scot's Herbal gives it the names Witch's thimble, Scotch mercury, wild mercury, fairy woman's plant.
    Most accounts give William Withering as the discoverer of foxglove for treating dropsy. He bought the remedy from Mrs. Hutton, a botanist and pharmacist who had been systematically studying it's effects.
    It was one of the ingredients in a love charm, along with butterbur, seaweed, royal fern and an old man's bones. They were to be burned to ashes then sprinkled on the loved one's chest.
    I believe that sometimes some of the Artemisias are called Old Man and Old Woman. I wonder if they could be referring to these plants and not actual bones.
    I live in the northeast US. Zone 5. I have to cover my plants or they don't make it through the winter.


  2. Thank you Brea, more information is always gratefully received. Mrs Grieve gives Witches' gloves as one of its synonyms, but as each trumpet is only small thimble makes much more sense. I am always interested in how these plants fare elsewhere in the world.