Plant, Herb, and Tree Lore

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In the field at Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall, England


Digitalis L.; common names: ‘Witches’ Gloves’, ‘Fairy’s Glove’, ‘Gloves of Our Lady’, ‘Virgin’s Glove’, ‘Fairy Caps’, ‘Folk’s Glove’, ‘Fairy Thimbles’, ‘fairy-folks-fingers’, ‘lambs-tongue-leaves’, ‘bloody fingers’, ‘deadman’s bells’.

Taxonomy: Kingdom: Plantae; Angiosperms; Eudicots; Asterids; Lamiales; Plantaginaceae; Digitalis L.; several species including: Digitalis cariensis; Digitalis ciliata; Digitalis davisiana; Digitalis dubia; Digitalis ferruginea; Digitalis grandiflora; Digitalis laevigata; Digitalis lanata; Digitalis leucophaea; Digitalis lutea; Digitalis obscura; Digitalis parviflora; Digitalis purpurea; Digitalis thapsi; Digitalis trojana; Digitalis viridiflora.

This beautiful plant has meant alot to me through my life – mainly because it saved my daughter’s life. As my daughter was born premature, her heart didn’t close/form properly before arrival – and the first part of her life she had to take dijoxin which is formulated from the Foxglove plant. What a wonderful essence on this planet. Digitalis or Foxglove, is over 20 species of herbaceous perennials, biennials, and shrubs that are native to western Europe, western/central Asia, and northwestern Africa. Leaves are spirally arranged, simple 10-35 cm long/5-12 cm broad grey-green downy with fine toothed margins forming a tight rosette during the first year of the plant’s life. Second year plants are typically 1-2 m tall with showy, terminal, elongated cluster leaves with tubular, pendant, and colorful flowers that are spotted within the flower tube’s bottom. The numerous tubular flowers bloom off a spike ranging in color from purple to white during the summer months. Flowering occurs usually early summer with some flower stems developing later in the season. “Digitalis” means “finger-like” describing to the ease with which one of its flowers can be fitted over a fingertip. The folk name “fox glove” may come from its similar shape and appearance to the ‘foxes glew’, a historic instrument that consisted of a ring of bells hung on an arched support. Its tubular flowers blossom off a tall spike. The colors of the flowers vary from purple to pink, white, and yellow. Digitalis purpurea, aka “Common Foxglove” is the most common species that is grown often as an ornamental plant. Common foxglove produces only a stem with long basal leaves. It grows in acidic soils under partial sunlight to deep shade, found commonly along roadsides, open woods, woodland clearings, moorlands, bogs, heath margins, sea-cliffs, rocky mountain slopes, and hedge banks.

Foxglove prefers partial shade in a well-drained acidic soil that is rich in humus. Established plants will tolerate dry shade. The plant is susceptible to crown rot and needs adequate drainage.

Common uses:
Foxglove is common to gardens for its flowers and appeal.

Medicinal: Digitalis is the main ingredient in the cardiac glycoside “digoxin”. ‘Digitalin’ is also a group of cardiac medicines extracted from foxglove. These are used to treat heart conditions by increasing cardiac contractility and as an antiarrhythmic agent to control the heart rate, particularly in irregular or fast atrial fibrillation. Some use digitalis as a weight loss aid even though this is proven unsafe. Folklorists have also suggested its success with epilepsy and other seizure disorders. Historically used for heart treatment. It has also been employed in the treatment of internal hemorrhage, in inflammatory diseases, in delirium tremors, in epilepsy, in acute mania and various other diseases, with real or supposed benefits. It is also a powerful diuretic and valuable remedy for dropsy. County Cork, Ireland it was found to be handy in taking the soft leaves at the plant’s center to utilize for healing cuts. It is for strengthening the heart and regulating heartbeat.
Safety: Very toxic, those suffering an overdose of digitalis may experience anorexia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometime xanthopsia (jaundiced or yellow vision) with the appearance of halos or blurred outlines. Bradycardia can also occur. Depending on the species, it may contain several deadly physiological and chemically related cardiac and steroidal glycosides which lead to the folk names “Dead Man’s Bells” and “Witches Gloves”. The entire plant is toxic including roots and seeds. A nibble can be enough to cause death. Symptoms include but are not limited to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, wild hallucinations, delirium, severe headache, irregular and slow pulse, tremors, various cerebral disturbances, especially of a visual nature, convulsions, and deadly disturbances of the heart. The plant is toxic to animals including all classes of livestock and poultry, as well as felids and canids.
Other uses: Ornamental plant found in gardens. Development of poison through history. Domestic use of the leaves to darken the lines engraved on stone floors creating a mosaic-like appearance. 19th century Dubliners dried the leaves and used it as snuff by old women.
Folklore: Northern legends stating that bad fairies gave these blossoms to the fox so that s/he might put them onto their toes to soften tread when prowling among the roosts. Other legends state that the blossoms are to mark where the elves had placed their fingers or that they were warning signs for the baneful juices secreted by the plant as in Ireland’s name for it as “Dead Man’s Thimbles”. Irish folklore considered it unlucky to bring into the home. The Latin “Digitalis” translates to “measuring a finger’s breadth”. It was named after “Fox glove” after “folk’s glove” whereas folk referred to woodland faeries and believed to be their gloves that they wore during raids on chicken coops blaming the thefts on thieves.

In the field at Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall, England

Foxglove near Lanyon Quiot, Cornwall, England


The Poison Garden, Blarney Castle, Ireland

The Poison Garden, Blarney Castle, Ireland

Foxglove (during winter) from the The Blarney Poison Garden at the
Blarney Castle, Cork, Ireland

© 2010-2014 ~ Article by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Productions, Originally published in 2010 with revisions through the years. All Rights Reserved.

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