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Wild Foxglove: The Magic and Medicine of Digitalis purpurea, part 3

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Most people know that foxglove is used in medicine. But here’s something less well known: foxglove heals plants as well as people. An old name for digitalis is “Doctor Foxglove”, because garden plants near it grow stronger and resist disease. “Apart from keeping plants healthier, they will improve the storage qualities of such things as potatoes, tomatoes, and apples grown near them,” report Maureen and Bridget Boland in Old Wives Lore for Gardeners.

Old names for plants often point to valuable clues about their uses, personalities, and associations.  A plant with a lot of names is a plant with a lot of clout.

Here are some of the older names for foxglove:
Witch’s Glove, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers,  Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk’s Glove, Fairy Thimbles, Lion’s Mouth, Fairy Fingers, King Elwand, Foxbell, Floppy dock, Flowster-Docker,  Fingerhut (German: means “thimble”), Revbielde (Norwegian).

Some of these names are a warning that foxglove can kill you, and others refer to the way the plant looks. The “glove” aspect of  many of the common names (including “foxglove”) is easy enough to see: can there be anybody who hasn’t surreptitiously slipped a finger into the hairy finger-shaped mouths of these flowers? “Digitalis”, the Latin name, makes the same connection: digitalis means “finger”.

But other names have even more evocative connections.

I’ve already mentioned the “glove” aspect of the name foxglove. The “fox” part is said to be derived from “Folk’s”,  referring to the fairy folk, who may have been plant spirits or the small dark Picts that the Celts and Anglo-Saxons overcame. The Picts were thought to have supernatural healing and magical powers, and they were pagans through and through, which accorded ill with the Romans and Christian regimes. The Picts may have been some of the original carriers of the knowledge of foxglove’s healing powers, or that knowledge may go even further back.

Some of foxglove’s other names hint of ancient powers. Foxglove is associated with the planet Venus; the names for foxglove that refer to the Virgin Mary are also likely a whitewashed or  in-code version of the older connections of foxglove with Venus.  Mary often did service in place of older, earlier goddesses, with more pagan fertility leanings. In some forms of Italian magic, foxglove is opens the user to strong sexual love, appropriate for a plant of Venus. But while romantic love is probably the best-known association with Venus, she also rules arts, beauty, and fairies, who live in earthly realms of enchantment. (I’m not sure who King Elwand is, but he has a very Oberon-like sound to him. Perhaps the overall shape of the flowering plant suggested this name.)

One version of Venus is the Tarot card “The Empress”, who sits enthroned (and often pregnant) in a garden of fruits and flowers, the ruler of earthly delights. That seems particularly appropriate for a plant that can improve the fertility of plants next to it, and even prolong the life of cut flowers.  If foxgloves are in an arrangement, all of the flowers in the bouquet will last longer. (As a cut flower, the best way to preserve foxglove is to cut the stem when only half the blossoms are open. Fill the hollow stem with water, then plug it and set in warm water. Although to be honest, I usually just whack off the stem and put into water in the same second; they still last for weeks if you keep them in a cool spot.) If you don’t have any foxgloves flowering, you can still take advantage of their life-enhancing properties: add foxglove tea to the water of other bouquets. You can make the tea by pouring boiling water on a handful of leaves and allowing them to steep overnight.

There are more literal associations with fertility goddesses, too: digitalis is extremely abundant in seeds (80,000 seeds per ounce, all high in protein, sugars, starches, and oils), and it propagates itself readily. Seeds are the usual way I get foxglove in my garden, though I do occasionally buy plants. In my zone-8 climate, the seeds germinate well if I plant them out in the winter and early spring rains. If I spring-planted digitalis, the sprouts would shrivel in early spring heat before they came to anything. If you have the room, the easiest way is to let foxgloves seed themselves; this way they naturally catch the cool raininess they like to sprout in. If you water where they’re planted, you may get a head start on next year. If you plant them where they’re happy, you’ll  have a steady parade of foxgloves.  Unfortunately for me, digitalis is from cool northern Europe and the UK; it has also naturalized in the Pacific Northwest, where I once saw it blooming thickly, purple and white backed up by giant firs, on the banks of Lake Crescent.

For a plant that prefers cool moisture, foxglove shows surprising adaptability when it gets old enough to have a root systsm. My garden notebook reminds me of at least two occasions where foxgloves did beautifully and bloomed for at least a month in 100-degree weather (38 C) and droughty conditions. One year,  I forgot some foxgloves in 4-inch (10.2 cm) plastic pots, hidden in the deep shade of a tree. I went off on a two-week vacation and left them unwatered (I never claimed to be a good gardener).  When I returned, they still looked fine, which was certainly no thanks to me.

Digitalis purpurea won’t stand complete drought forever, though: one year the water system failed in one of the foxglove beds, and I didn’t notice it. They did, though: they died.  In my mediterranean climate, rain in summer is so rare that we may not have it for years in a row. So when  a watering system dies, so do most of the plants

In my climate, foxgloves in the ground get plenty of high shade and plenty of mulch. In containers, I use moisture-retaining granules in the soil mix and give the foxgloves some form of bottom-watering, so they never suffer shock from going dry.

Tasha Tudor, the artist-gardener, grows towers of foxgloves that create the most romantic effect. But they are nurtured by a substance most consider most unromantic: manure tea. I have not yet tried manure tea on my foxgloves, but I intend to start this year; pictures of Tudor’s garden have raised foxglove-envy in my heart.

Another little-known use for foxgloves might contain a hint for gardeners: in Russia, prospectors looking for coal or iron deposits watch for foxglove stands from their helicopters. Since minerals and foxgloves have an affinity, mineral-rich fertilizer might be ideal for giant foxgloves.

Rumor has it that cutting back the stalks of foxgloves will give you a second flowering. This has never happened to me, despite a long growing season.  I was thinking that might be because it is just too hot here, but then I remembered I have seen foxgloves flowering in town in September. Maybe those gardeners have more water to spare, or maybe (much as I loathe admitting it) they’re just better gardeners.

There are a large number of garden variations on the Digitalis purpurea theme, some of which I’ve already mentioned in this series. I’ll be posting about a few more foxgloves that I’ve grown, then wind up with a wish list that includes unusual species as well as some garden cultivars which have only subtle differences from the wild foxglove.

Next post: Pink Foxgloves.  Sort of.

References for Digitalis purpurea:

Maureen and Bridget Boland, Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, Bodley Head 1976;  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977

Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1931; Dover edition, 1971

Sybil Leek, Herbs, Medicine, and Mysticism, Henry Regnery Co., 1975, pg. 142-143

Richard Le Strange, A History of Herbal Plants, Arco Publishing Company, Inc., 1977

Tovah Martin and Richard W. Brown, Tasha Tudor’s Garden, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994

Magic and Medicine of Plants, ed. Inge N. Dobelis, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. 1986, pg. 188

Joseph E. Meyer, The Herbalist,  Meyerbooks, 1960, 1976, pg. 46

Marina Medici, Good Magic, Prentice Hall Press, 1988

Lee Sturdivant, Flowers for Sale, San Juan Naturals, 1992

Cynthia Van Hazinga and the editors of Old Farmer’s Alamanc, Flower Gardening Secrets, Yankee Publishing, 1997

Katherine Whiteside and Mick Hales, Antique Flowers,  Villard Books, 1989

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • inadvertentfarmer February 5, 2009, 9:36 am

    Very interesting to learn about the history and lore around one of my favorite all time flowers! Thanks, Kim

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  • Barrington Hawkins February 3, 2015, 6:19 am

    Hi. Where can I get Foxglove as a medication for the Heart? And what would be the cost.

    Thank you.

  • Barrington Hawkins February 3, 2015, 6:21 am

    Great plant story, Foxglove is good for many things I see.

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  • gerarda boger November 10, 2016, 11:03 am

    I grew digitalis from seed and potted up plugs early fall to overwinter in a cold frame for sale next spring. They have filled out beautifully with healthy root systems. Some of the plants have pushed out flower stalks. (11/10/16) Do I leave alone and allow plant to dormant, or cut stalk now before the dormancy process begins… which will be shortly. thank you

  • Sue March 24, 2017, 3:13 am

    Except you forgot to mention Digitalis is also poisonous and can cause many adverse health effects if not administered properly…

  • Joel Reicherter June 3, 2017, 5:11 pm

    I planted 4 foxglove plants about 8 years ago in front of my home. Now there are about 50 – 60 foxglove plants growing wildly over my 2 acre wooded property in Lloyd Harbor, N.Y. Many of the wild foxglove plants are in the woods or near the woods. I get many compliments of the beautiful flowers that seem like they are growing wild. Is this typical??

  • Helen June 10, 2017, 12:56 pm

    Ruled by Venus, that’s what I wanted to know, thanks. Very nice article. My foxgloves all just arrived and self seed it’s magnificent. I’m in the UK.
    Very informative, thank you ?

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