Names, mythology, uses and folk-lore: A very large number of names have been devised for the foxglove. These include: bunny rabbit’s (mouth), witch’s thimble, ladies thimble, goose/cow/fox flops, virgin’s fingers, wild mercury and many, many more. The foxglove name is just that – the fox’s glove. It has also been given fairy associations.
In centuries gone by children who had gone missing might be assumed to have been abducted by fairies. They could be brought back under the influence of fox-glove magic. Equally when a mother discovered in her child’s cradle a child uglier than she thought should be there, she might wonder if the child had been swapped by the fairies, a “changeling” being left behind. Feeding the baby with fox-glove tea, made from foxglove leaves, would not affect a changeling, confirming it to be of fairy origin. (Isabel Haldane, in 1625, gave a child foxglove tea under these circumstances – the child died!!).
As early as 1785, cardiac properties of the leaves were recognised. When given to people with heart failure and dropsy (ankle swelling) they would be improved. The active ingredient is a glycoside – digitalis – and digoxin is the synthetic derivative which is widely used in treating cardiac failure. Before this a weight of dried leaves would be prescribed – the effect could not always be anticipated for the drug’s concentration varied. The dried leaves are still prescribed in oriental medicine.
Culpeper recommended it in an ointment for cleansing wounds and treating the King’s evil – scrofula (TB of the skin) and also in the treatment of a “scabby head”. James Telfer, a Northumbrian shepherd turned school master, wrote a ballad about fairy plants and how they could work for and against you (Border Ballads, 1825). The foxglove is mentioned in Druid literature – her (a girl) breasts were more white than the breast of a white swan; her cheeks more red than the foxglove (Cwlhuch and Olwen – from the Druid Network).