12 June 2013

FOXGLOVE - Fingerflower, Gantelee, Fingerhut, Foxbell, Lusmore, Goblin's gloves, Dead Man's Thimbles. Digitalis grandiflora. Digitalis purpurea. And that's just for a start. Whatever you want to call it, it's one of my favorite plants and the fairy flower par excellence.

Supposedly, the foxglove's flowers resemble the fingers of a glove, which is one explanation of a name that dates to Edward III of England. The fairy connection is ascribed to the plant's characteristic mottled blossoms, which were said to mark where the elves had placed their fingers. Another etymology is provided by Richard Folkard, who claims that the plant's original name was "folksglove," referring to the glove of the "good folk" or fairies, who haunted the hollows that were the foxglove's native habitat. The Irish called the plant Lusmore, and also Fairy-cap - and believed the fair folk would hide themselves in the bells at the sound of an approaching human foot. In the Irish legend of Knockgrafton, the hero, a poor hunchback who was adept in the lore of herbs and charms, wears a sprig of foxglove in his little straw hat. Another Irish fairy, called the Shefro, wears the corolla of the Foxglove on his head. And Browne describes Pan as seeking these flowers as gloves for his mistress. Other traditions claim that witches decorated their fingers with the foxglove's largest bells, which is why they're called "Witches' Bells."

The plant's Latin name Digitalis (from Digitabulum, a thimble) derives from the German name Fingerhut (thimble) and was proposed by the 16th-century German herbalist Leonhard Fuchs. However, its Norwegian name, Revbielde (Foxbell), alludes to an actual Fox, who was told by the fairies to put these blooms on his toes in order to soften his tread when he prowled among the roosts - a legend that led to the plant's Anglo-Saxon etymology, foxes glofa (the glove of the fox). In the French traditions, which name the plant Gants de Notre Dame and Doigts de la Vierge, the gloves in question refer to the Virgin Mary. Dr. Prior, on the other hand, attempted to connect the name to music, claiming that the original name was foxes-glew, or music (Anglo-Saxon gliew) "in reference to a favourite instrument of earlier times, a ring of bells hung on an arched support -which this plant, with its hanging bell- shaped flowers, so exactly represents."

Another Irish legend claims that the marks on the Foxglove were a warning sign of the baneful juices secreted by the plant, which in Ireland gain it the popular name of "Dead Man's Thimbles." And certainly, Digitalis is a dangerous plant, even though it is widely acknowledged to have curative properties. According to "Time's Telescope" of 1822, women of the poorer class in Derbyshire indulged in copious draughts of Foxglove-tea, as a cheap means of obtaining the pleasures of intoxication. Similarly, the Italians call the plant Aralda, and have this proverb concerning it: "Aralda tutte piaghe salda (Aralda salveth all sores)" And foxglove was employed by the old herbalists as well: Gerard recommends it to those "who have fallen from high places," and Parkinson speaks highly of the bruised herb or of its expressed juice for scrofulous swellings, when applied outwardly in the form of an ointment, and the bruised leaves for cleansing for old sores and ulcers. Dodoens (1554) prescribed it boiled in wine as an expectorant. Culpepper says it is of: "a gentle, cleansing nature and withal very friendly to nature…"

Nonetheless, digitalis' effect on the heart is well documented - and quite often fatal. Better far to treat the plant as a cottage garden favorite - and nothing more. We grow both kinds of foxglove in our garden: the biennial Digitalis purpurea, and the perennial Digitalis grandiflora. And although this has been a great spring, we're still learning how to coax the former to naturalize by scattering both purchased and harvested seeds. The latter are much easier, verging, quite frankly, on being a weed. But a dry shade-tolerant, clay-tolerant, zone 5 weed. And there are few beyond the fairies that could produce such a useful plant.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird