Other Names Goblin Gloves, Witches’ Gloves, Dead Men’s Bells, Fairy’s Glove, Gloves of Our Lady, Bloody Fingers, Virgin’s Glove, Fairy Caps, Folk’s Glove, Fairy Thimbles
Foxglove is a striking plant for shade gardens, but it is also very poisonous and should be planted with this in mind. It reaches up to 5 feet tall and can spread to 18 inches. A multitude of thimble-shaped flowers will appear in the late spring of the second year in tall spikes in various pastel colors, depending on the variety. Throats are white with darker spots, usually burgundy.
- Common Foxglove Digitalis pupurea (shown here) has purple to white flowers, though there are many different colored cultivars, including “alba” which is white without spots.
- Rusty Foxglove Digitalis ferruginea can get up to six feet tall and has red flowers.
- Yellow Foxglove Digitalis grandiflora has yellow flowers blotched with brown.
- Merton foxglove or Strawberry Foxglove Digitalis X mertonensis is a perennial (unlike all the others which are biennial) that can reach about three feet tall and has bright red flowers.
History and Folklore
The origin of the common name “foxglove” is unclear, but the original name may have been folksglove, referring to faerie folk.
The Latin name, digitalis comes from the word digitanus, meaning finger for the thimble-shaped flowers that look like you could fit your finger right inside.
Although foxglove is very dangerous if misused, it has a long history of medicinal use for heart and kidney problems, edema and aconite poisoning. Legend says that Van Gogh used it to treat his epilepsy.
An old saying about foxglove goes “It can raise the dead and it can kill the living”.
In the 1700s, William Withering learned of this folk remedy from “an old woman in Shropshire” and studied it. This led to Digitalis being a very important plant-derived medicine for heart disease that is still in use to this day.
In Roman mythology, Flora showed Hera or Juno how to impregnate herself with no need of a man by touching a foxglove to her belly and her breasts. She either gave birth to Mars or Vulcan from this method, depending on the source.
Scandinavian legend says that the faeries taught foxes to ring foxglove bells to warn each other of approaching hunters.
Foxglove, or digitalis, has a long association with witches and witchcraft.
Foxglove will grow in most zones, but not along the gulf coast. It likes a bit of sun, but scorches easily and requires a bit of shade in the latter part of the day. If you live in the deep south, it will do best in the deep shade. Foxglove germinates well from seed. Just throw it down, no need to even cover it or fertilize. Plant foxglove in moist but well-drained soil that is slightly acidic, but remember, they are biennial so you won’t get any blooms until next year. It will then self-seed and you will need to divide the clumps every few years to prevent overcrowding. Mulching will prevent reseeding.
Harvesting & Storage
Cut flowers when they first bloom and hang upside down to dry.
Be sure to wear gloves when working with foxglove.
Juice or dew collected from foxgloves can be used in ritual to commune with the faeries and the leaves are said to help break faerie enchantments. Do not let it touch your skin and do not inhale the smoke if you burn the leaves!
Plant foxgloves anywhere you wish to invite the faeries to come visit.
Carry foxglove with you to attract faerie energy.
Foxglove is poisonous to humans but attracts bees and hummingbirds.
Chemicals are extracted from foxglove for the medical industry. Digitalis is a common medicine for heart patients. However, it is also a cardiac toxin and should never be used except under the care of a professional.
Note. Foxglove is a cardiac toxin. Do not eat.