The spires of purple foxglove growing far above our heads in wild corners of Dorset shout ‘June is here!’, says wildlife writer Jane Adams
June without foxgloves would be unthinkable. With their purple-pink spikes nodding in the breeze, they are a harbinger of warm summer days to come. No matter what madness is happening in the world, you can always rely on the foxglove spires to appear.
But for all their beauty and reliability, they hide a darker, more sinister side – every part of a foxglove is poisonous.
Kill the living
But poisons can have their uses. As early as the 13th century, European scholars documented the use of dried foxglove leaves as a treatment for heart conditions. The medical benefits were inconsistent, however and as an ancient saying warns, the foxglove has the power to ‘raise the dead or kill the living.’
With such a potent reputation, it’s no wonder foxgloves feature so prominently in British folklore. Villagers are encouraged to hang dried flowers over their doors to ward off evil spirits. Witches reputedly use foxgloves in their flying potions, and foxes slip the bell-shaped blooms over their toes in order to creep up on unsuspecting prey.
It wasn’t until the late 17th century that botanist and physician William Withering isolated the foxglove’s active ingredient. He called his discovery digitalis (after the foxglove’s scientific name, Digitalis purpurea) and soon its medical use became widespread. Even now, a molecule found in digitalis is synthetically produced to treat heart problems.
Dead man’s bells
Although their biennial blooms are most commonly purple in the wild, pink or white are not unusual, and each spear of bells can contain hundreds of thousands of seeds.
Among the pollinators attracted to the plant are long-tongued bumblebees. Look out for them, squeezing their hairy bodies into the flowers in search of nectar – buzzing like mad inside the tubes and usually covering themselves in pollen as they do so.
Over the years, the foxglove has picked up its fair share of colloquial names, from dead man’s bells and floppy-dock to goblin gloves and beardtongue. But though I searched high and low, I couldn’t trace a local Dorset name. Maybe you know it? If you do, please let me know.
Even though foxgloves are a common sight this time of year in gardens, woodland edges, meadows and on road verges, do beware. You just might glimpse a gloved fox out of the corner of your eye, silently stalking you…