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Foxglove – Poison & Cardiac Cure

Foxglove flowerThis unusual flower is called Foxglove. It’s also known as Purple Foxglove, or Lady’s Glove, and in Latin it’s named digitalis purpurea. The Latin and English names are related, more or less, by meaning, but they’re not translations of one to the other. The Latin digitalis purpurea means purple ring.

A ring and a glove, of course, fit smoothly over a finger, and you can see how each elongated bell-shaped blossom can fit neatly over a finger. In fact, kids when left to themselves are liable to poke a finger into those blossoms — until you rush up, shouting, “Those are poisonous! Don’t touch them!” Because, as a matter of fact, the entire plant from root to top is lethally poisonous.

The Latin digitalis is formed from the word digitus, which means finger, and even if you don’t know Latin you can probably see that it contains our word digit, which means finger or toe, and because we count on our fingers, the word digit also refers to any of the numerals from 1 to 9, and a long time ago we decided to include 0 in that group, too.

Wake up, we’re not through yet!  About 235 years ago, William Withering, a British doctor, noticed that people with dropsy, which was the name given at that time to the swelling seen in people afflicted with congestive heart failure — people with dropsy got better when given a certain herbal remedy. Withering discovered that the active ingredient in the herbal mix (it contained over 20 different herbs) came from Foxglove. The herbalists who compounded that concoction must have been skilled, because a bit too much of the Foxglove would have killed the patient.

William Withering was not only physician, but also a botanist, chemist and geologist. A brilliant man, he married a young woman who was a botanical illustrator, and they had three children. Withering died in 1799, age 58, and though he contributed to many branches of science he’s now remembered chiefly for his recognition of digitalis as a remedy for certain cardiac conditions.

We haven’t mentioned the different explanations of why the plant is called Foxglove. It’s too confusing. Besides, you may feel we’ve already gone on too long about that tall plant with the purple bell-shaped blossoms.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.