A Writers Guide to Foxglove

Digitalis purpurea

Digitalis purpurea

Foxglove bears 2-5 foot tall spikes of tubular flowers. Colors include pink, red, purple, white, and yellow. The flower throats are often speckled.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Digitalis; Digitalis purpurea is the most well-known variety.

Common/Folk Names: Bloody Fingers, Dead Men’s Bells, Cottagers, Cow-flop, Fairy Caps, Fairy Petticoats, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Fingers, Fairy’s Glove, Fairy Weed, Folks Gloves, Fox Bells, Foxglove, Fox Mittens, Gloves of Our Lady, Goblin Gloves, Lion’s Mouth, Scotch Mercury, Throatwort, Virgin’s Glove, Witch’s Bells, Witch’s Gloves, and Witch’s Thimbles.

Life Cycle: biennial, but newer varieties are perennial
Habitat: full sun to partial shade to full shade, moist but not soggy soil
Blooms: mid-summer

Smell: leaves smell slightly bad, flowers have no discernible scent (Don’t smell it.)
Taste: spicy hot or bitter (Don’t taste it.)

Notes

  • There are over 20 species of digitalis.
  • The flowers attracts bees and hummingbirds.
  • Foxglove leaves contain digitalis, a potent heart medicine. Digitalis contains digitoxin, digoxin, and other cardiac glycosides that affect the heart. Digitalis is poisonous. The upper leaves of the stem are more dangerous than the lower leaves. Foxglove is most toxic just before the seeds ripen.
  • Wear gloves when working with foxglove.

History

  • Van Gogh may have been treated for epilepsy with foxglove, a common practice of the time.
  • People who received large and repeated doses of digitalis often saw the world with a yellow-green tint. They frequently complained of seeing yellow spots surrounded by coronas.
  • Foxglove was used to treat heart and kidney problems, dropsy (edema), and aconite (wolfsbane) poisoning. Don’t try it.
  • It was used as a salve to treat abscesses, boils, wounds, and to cure ulcers. Don’t try it.
  • It was also taken to treat headaches, paralysis, and stomach ulcers. Don’t try it.
  • Foxglove tea was used to treat coughs, colds, and fevers–even after the plant was known to be fatal. Don’t try it.
  • Foxglove leaves were placed in children’s shoes to prevent Scarlet Fever.
  • In Wales, a black dye was made from the leaves. Lines and crosses were painted on the stone cottage floors to keep witches away. Another version is that is was purely decorative as it gave the floor a mosaic look.

Lore

  • Foxglove attracts fairies. Fairies supposedly play inside the flowers. The speckles denotes where a fairy has touched the surface of the flower.
  • Elves like foxglove too.

    “…for as to the elves, having sought them in vain among foxglove leaves and bells…” –Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

  • Grown in front of the house, foxglove protects the occupants from evil influences.
  • Picking foxglove from the garden and bringing it inside will anger fairies.
  • Placing a piece of the flower inside a charm will give protection from dark forces with the “light of the fairy.”
  • The juice/dew of foxgloves placed in a ritual circle will allow one to communicate with fairies.
  • The stems will lean over when supernatural beings are present.
  • In Roman mythology, Flora showed Juno how to impregnate herself by touching a foxglove to her belly and her breasts.
  • Foxglove is associated with witches and witchcraft, and it is grown in a witch’s garden.
  • Spells and rituals use foxglove in baneful magic (harmful magic), divination, and protection.

“It can raise the dead and it can kill the living.” –old saying

In the Language of Flowers, it means: insincerity

This is a reference for fiction writers and should not be taken as medical or spiritual advice.

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27 Comments

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  1. Well, if it can kill the living, I promise I won’t taste or smell it!

  2. “It can raise the dead and kill the living.” Love that line!
    I was familiar with its poisonous nature, but the lore was all new to me. Thanks!

    1. The lore fascinates me, so does some of the historical uses.

  3. I’ve always loved growing foxglove, but now that I know it can attract faeries, I’m growing a heck of a lot more. I need some faeries in my life.

    1. Just don’t bring it inside! LOL

  4. It’s a beautiful flower. I’ve heard it was used in witch’s brews.

    1. I love this flower. It’s like the quintessential cottage garden flower too.

  5. Oh, this is right up my alley at the moment. Writing a story about a witch who uses all sorts of botanical concoctions to get her way. 🙂

  6. It’s so pretty! I enjoy learning the details about these wonderful creations. Thanks for sharing the info with us. 🙂

  7. It’s actually surprising to me that a flower so pretty is poisonous. And it doesn’t have the harsh bright colors I’d expect from something telegraphing it’s poisonous.

    1. Right? Some of the other plants I’ve researched just look poisonous, but not these.

  8. For something that’s poisonous, it had a lot of medicinal uses! Better left for the fairies, I think.

  9. Even though it can be deadly, it’s still such a beautiful flower.

  10. Hi Holly – I love foxgloves standing straight and tall .. and those thimble-shaped flowers are so pretty – and the bumble bees chunter in and out … thankfully digitalis has some healing properties used medically …

    Cheers Hilary

    1. It’s such a pretty flower–and last night I watched a show that used foxglove as the murder weapon.

  11. Very interesting lore. It’s a very pretty flower. I don’t know if I’d grow it since I’d be afraid to touch it.

  12. I had no idea its poison was digitalis. I love the quote about raising the dead. That (and most of the other lore) would make great premises for stories!

  13. I promise not to do any of that! It’s a pretty flower, though. 🙂 Have a great weekend.

  14. I’ve always loved foxglove, but knowing its poisonous properties, I’ve been hesitant to plant it, afraid one of my furry children might chew on the leaves.

  15. Another MAGICAL post, Holly.

    The love the fairy references and if I ever have a house with land, I certainly would grow it. It may be to close for comfort for my puppy to put it on my balcony…. But it is lovely…
    Thanks for the interesting lore.

  16. from gems to flowers – a plethora of detailed knowledge you have!

    and i had fun with the prompt from your last post =)

  17. Dude, that sounds like one potent flower. I loved all the (Don’t try it.) notes. I saw the line about wolfsbane and thought about a friend who writes werewolf stories. I like the lore too. Great write-up!

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