The generic name Digitalis comes from the Latin for finger (digitus), referring to the shape of the flowers. It is easy to see why the tapering, tubular flowers are thought to resemble gloves of a small woodland creature, but why foxes? According to Richard Mabey – in Flora Britannica, it may be because it grows in places where foxes are to be found; on moorland edges with bracken, on steep bank beside rabbit burrows and open spaces in cultivated forests. Other names it is known by include: Witches’ Gloves. Dead Men’s Bells. Fairy’s Glove. Gloves of Our Lady. Bloody Finger – all of which refer to it toxicity.
The entire plant is toxic (including the roots and seeds), although the leaves of the upper stem are particularly potent, with just a nibble being enough to potentially cause death.
According to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew:
William Withering, an eighteenth century botanist and physician, studied the medicinal use of foxgloves, in particular their use in the treatment of dropsy. He discovered that an infusion of the leaves could slow and strengthen the heartbeat, which in turn stimulated the kidneys to clear the body and lungs of excess fluid. He also showed that foxglove leaves could be used in the treatment of heart failure (but that high doses could stop the heart). Withering’s An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses: with Practical Remarks on Dropsy, and Other Diseases (1785) is a landmark publication, being the first English text in which the therapeutic effects of a drug are described, and is considered by some to mark the birth of modern pharmacology. Withering’s work led to the eventual isolation and purification of digitoxin and digoxin (cardiac glycosides used in modern medicine as heart stimulants in the drug digitalis).
The drugs are now mostly prepared from imported leaves of European Digitalis species (usually D. lanata), but during the Second World War foxgloves were picked in the UK. They were gathered in large quantities and the picking was organised by the Women’s Institute.
The inside of the flower has dark purple spots edged with white. These guide bees and other insects towards the nectar, deep inside the flower. The Foxglove is a favourite flower of the honey-bee, and it relies on bees for pollination. The projecting lower lip of the corolla forms a platform for the bee to land, and as they push their way up the bell, the anthers of the stamens which lie flat on the corolla above are rubbed against the bee’s back. When the bees go from flower to flower the pollen is transferred and the flower is fertilized and seeds are able to be produced.
One single stem can have up to 80 flowers and a single Foxglove plant produce from one to two million seeds to ensure its propagation.