Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

November 1987: Foxglove

As I walked through the garden during this past month, I found myself reflecting on an appropriate rltual for the beginning of November. There were lots of possibilities, but after some thought, I realized that the one closest to my heart would use the garden as a metaphor.

The most predominant task a gardener faces at this time of the year is the cutting back of summer's exuberent growth in preparation for the winter. A trimming down so that the plant can support itself through the lean times of less sunlight and less nutrients. A plant that goes into the winter with too much top growth has a higher chance of being killed during the dark, cold times ahead.

We humans have our cycles just like the plants and this month is perhaps a good time to pause and reflect upon the past year, paying attention to what has been lost and what has been gained. And after this has been accomplished, also take the time to clean up all the unwanted mental effluvia and "put out the trash". You Macintosh nerds will have an easy time with this! And so this simple act of pruning will be the November ritual both for my plants and for myself.

A counterbalance is needed to all this deep, dark underground stuff so I decided to write about a charming plant that looks very cheerful on the surface and is an extremely beneficial plant. But as we find so often, what can heal can also hurt, and this plant is also a deadly poison. It's the Foxglove, a fairy flower if there ever was one.

Digitalis purpurea, the common foxglove is a native of the British Isles. Its favorite habitat being the woodland dells that the fairies love to roam in, there was probably an early association in peoples' minds between the two. There seems to be some dispute as to the origin of the name. One source says that it's a shortened form of "folk's glove" and that the fairies used the flowers for gloves. It seems that the fairies cannot go out at night without wearing a cap and so of course their hands must be gloved to match.

Other local names for the plant are Fairy Gloves, Fairy Fingers, Fairy's Thimble and Goblin's Thimble. Because the flower is so well designed to attract the bees, the lower lip having a pattern of dots that says to the bee "this way to the nectar", the plant is also known as Bee-Catcher or Beehive.

In France, it is known as Gant de Notre Dame, or Gur Lady's Glove. (Any plant name with the prefix Lady, eg. Ladyslipper, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary). It also seems that the flower was held in high esteem by the witches of long ago who used to decorate their fingers with the bell shaped flowers, these being known as Witches' thimbles. The Irish call it the Fairy Bell and the Welsh, Menyg elyllon or Elf gloves.

There is another legend as to the origin of the name and that is that the bad fairies gave the flowers to the fox to put on his paws so that he could silently steal into the henhouse. This corresponds with the earliest known form of the word, the Anglo-Saxon foxes glufel (the gloves o' the fox).The list of common names for this flower seem to be as numerous as the fairies themselves.

The foxglove is a bee plant and is extremely favored by them. The shape of the flower seems designed just to accommodate the bees. But it is interesting to note that no other animal will eat the foxglove, perhaps sensing how poisonous it is. The blotches on the flowers, like the spots on butterflies' wings and the tails of peacocks and pheasants are supposed to mark where elves have placed their fingers.

The Latin name Digitalis, (from Digitabulum, a thimble,) was first employed by Leonhard Fuchs, a sixteenth centuryGerman herbalist. Culpepper states that the Foxglove is under the dominion of Venus since it has a gentle, cleansing nature and is friendly to nature. He also recommends a foxglove ointment to cure scabby heads and advises us that the Italians use a bruised fresh leaf on wounds to heal them.

Gerard recommends the herb for "those that have fallen from high places." I don't know if he means literally or figuratively. Parkinson says to use the expressed juice as an ointment for scrofulous swellings and the bruised leaves for cleaning old sores and ulcers. It was also prescribed as an expectorant (boiled in wine first) but today this would be thought of as dangerous because of the possibility of poisoning.

It is the Foxglove's action on the heart that has caused its fame today. Digitalis contains four glucosides, three of which are cardiac stimulants. It increases the activity of all forms of muscles tissue but mostly the heart and arteries. It also acts upon the kidneys as a diuretic. Other uses of Digitalis are for neuralgia, insanity, febrile diseases, acute inflammatory complaints and asthma.

Murder mystery fans take note: a murderer's plan can be foiledl Digitalis is an antidote to Aconite poisoning and is given as a hypodermic injection.


The Prime Mover of the Universe