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Foxgloves featured prominently throughout my trip to Pembrokeshire from the outset, growing in all types of habitat from the Snowdonia mountains down to the cliffs of the south-west coast and everywhere in between.

Foxglove plant in a woodland clearing

FoxgloveDigitalis purpurea – Welsh – Ffion or Maneg Ellyllyn — The Good People’s Glove

The graceful Foxglove is a downy biennial herb that thrives in acidic soils in a wide range of habitats. In their first year produce large furry basal leaves are produced followed in the second year by impressive spikes from 3-6 feet (1-2m) tall. They die after seeding, but if the flowers are picked  before going to seed, the basal leaves will last another year to attempt to seed again.

Three basic colour phases self-seed pink, purple & white. They can seed true to the parent wherever color forms are isolated, but they cross-pollinate freely & many stands of foxgloves include all shades.

In Wales it is a characteristic plant of early summer, thriving in the shady conditions of open woods, woodland clearings and hedge banks, but also tolerating the open and exposed habitats of  moorland and heath margins, sea-cliffs and rocky mountain slopes. It is also likely to appear where  ground has been disturbed, such as newly cleared woodland, or where the old vegetation has been burnt.

A stand of foxgloves on the edge of a woodland clearing

This genus was traditionally placed in the figwort family Scrophulariaceae, but recent reviews of phylogenetic research have placed it in the much enlarged family Plantaginaceae (plantains).

Foxglove-digitalis purpurea. A plant that is beautiful on the outside but toxic at its heart, the inside of the ‘bell’ or corolla tube has white spots with dark purple centres.

There are 4 stamens and a style inside the tube. Pollination is mainly by bumblebees, but here a Silver Y moth was venturing right up inside each bell in turn

Origin of the name

There have been many suggestions for the derivation of the name “foxglove”. It is an ancient name and exists in a list of plants as old as the time of Edward III (King of England from 1327-1377). The prefix ‘fox’ has most likely been commuted over time from “folks”, who to our fourteenth century ancestors were the fairies, but so called as to speak of them explicitly was believed to get their attention & cause them to do mischief. It seems very likely that the pretty coloured bells of the plant would be designated “folksgloves,” then afterwards, “foxglove.”

Foxgloves growing on the cliffs beside the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, with a view of part of the magnificent coastline behind them

There appear to be two Welsh names for the Foxglove, one is Ffion, from which the popular Welsh female name is taken and the other Maneg Ellyllyn which translate as  “The Good People’s Glove.”

In Gaelic they were Lus Mor, the Great Herb, for being the most magical of all herbs.

Plants that are widespread & medicinally potent invariably acquire a large number of folk-names, & foxglove’s many names are a case study in our ancestor’s imaginations.

There are a whole host of common names that reflect the association with fairies Fairy Caps, Fairy Gloves, Fairy Thimbles, Fairy Herb, Fairybells, Fairy-fingers, Goblin Gloves, Fairy Petticoats, Fairyweed.

The names Flopdock, Floppydock, Flop-a-Dock, Flapdock, Popdock, Flop-poppy, Flop-top, Cowflop, Gooseflops, Rabbit’s Flowers or Bunny Rabbits all allude to the foxglove’s large soft furry leaves.

Mythology and legends

One story has it that fairies secrete themselves inside the flowers, and make a snapping sound when children, holding one end of the flower bell, suddenly strike the other end on their hand to hear the clap of fairy thunder, with which the disturbed and indignant fairy makes her escape from her retreat.

A contorted foxglove on the windswept edge of Ramsey Island, with Pembrokeshire coastline in the distance

Another Welsh legend explains why  foxgloves bend and sway so gracefully. It has nothing to do with the wind, but that as the flower is sacred to the fairies, it has the power of recognising them, and indeed all spiritual beings who pass by, and that it bows in deference to them as they waft along.

Foxglove mythology associates the flower with Juno (Hera) who learned midwife lore from the Goddess Flora, including a supernatural method of using foxgloves to induce parthenogenetic (single-sex) pregnancy. Flora placed a foxglove blossom on her thumb, touched Juno on the tips of her breasts & on her belly, so that she became impregnated with Mars who had no father.

In English Literature

At least two great poets, Wordsworth and Tennyson were moved to immortalise the foxglove in words; the former clearly aware of  the deadly qualities of the plant. In The Borderers, a tragedy,  a woman describes a dream she had:

“My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:
When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die.”

Tennyson names the flower in the poem ‘In Memoriam’ –

” …. Bring orchis, bring the foxglove spire…”

and also in ‘The Two Voices’ –

”  ….The foxglove cluster dappled bells …”

Modern medicinal uses 

No matter what its name or legend, the plant is highly poisonous and, in the right dosage, has the ability to severely affect the heart rate, possibly causing death.

Foxglove is the source of several cardiac glycosides, the very digitalis used as a heart medication. With careful usage with physician guidance, digitalis has saved thousands of lives, but it is at the same time a dangerously toxic plant. It can cause heart palpitations, delerium, hallucinations, vomiting, & possibly death.

The use of Digitalis purpurea extract containing cardiac glycosides for the treatment of heart conditions was first described in English language medical literature by William Withering, in 1785, which is considered the beginning of modern therapeutics.

It is used to increase cardiac contractility and as an antiarrhythmic agent to control the heart rate, particularly in individuals affected by irregular (and often fast) atrial fibrillation and especially if they have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Traditional, folk and herbal medicine

Digitalis is a drug that is derived from a plant that was  formerly used by folklorists and herbalists: modern -day herbalists have largely abandoned its use because of its narrow therapeutic index and the difficulty of determining the amount of active drug in herbal preparations. Once the usefulness of digitalis in regulating the human pulse was understood, it was employed for a variety of purposes, including the treatment of epilepsy and other seizure disorders, which are now considered to be inappropriate treatments.

Foxglove flowers were supposed to look like an animal’s open mouth. Within the doctrine of signatures this meant it must have some medicinal value in treatment of injuries of the mouth & throat. The speckles in the mouth of the flower were according to the Doctrine symbolic of inflamation of the throat. Another array of folk-names reflect foxglove’s association with the mouth: Throatwort, Rabbit’s Mouth, Bunny Mouths, Tiger’s Mouth, Duck’s Mouth, Gap-Mouth, & Dragon’s Mouth.

The name Scabbit Dock came about  because in Culpepper’s day it was used in an ointment or shampoo for treating impetigo or “scabby head”.

An association with midwifery probably gave rise to the names Granny’s Gloves or Granny’s Bonnets, & Witch’s or Witches’ Gloves. Witches & grannies, or at least midwives & other herbal practitioners, had many uses for this plant. Dr William Withering, the aforementioned man credited with discovering digitalis as a heart remedy circa 1775, apparently learned of its potency from an unnamed midwife.