Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Common Foxglove/Thimble/ Fingerbøl

Digitalis purpurea

Digitalis, Rold Skov

Digitalis is named fox-bell i  Norway, Fingerhut in Germany  - other names are Death Bell, Witch Bell, Bloody Bells, Bloody Fingers. The Latin name digitalis comes from the word digitus, meaning finger. The name purpurea refers to the purple colour of the flower, but there are digitalis with white flowers.

Digitalis is also called Our Lady's Gloves, Our Lady's Thimble or Virgin Finger. It was especially cultivated in village garden for the pretty flowers. The digitalis grows wild in the mountain areas of Western Europe, from Sardinia and Corsica in the south to the northern Atlantic coast, including Norway.

Folk Medicine:
In folk medicine digitalis is mentioned in 1775, when the physician Withering discovered perceptible results in the use of the plant. He had been introduced to the plant by an old woman, who cured herself from dropsy with digitalis. Also Withering's wife got digitalis for her bad heart-condition. Digitalis is also used to treat infections and to cure headache. Since the flowers look like little fingerstalls, they were used as a plaster on fingers, when people had cut themselves. The leaves were used against epilepsia and upon tumors.
In 1824 a French physician succeeded in isolating the alcaloid digitalin from the leaves, and this medical means helped since then numbers of people with a bad heart-condition. 
church dike, North Jutland
Superstition and Legend:
It was believed that the plant could only cure heart diseases if it was plucked with the left hand. If the flower itself was plucked, the elfs were disturbed. The flower reminds about the hats of the druids, therefore the plant was regarded as the flower of the druids. If elfs steals a baby, the juice from the plant can secure that the baby comes back.

According to a legend from Greece the goddes Juno onne day was embroidering a tapestry. In order to avoid to be stuck by the needle she had put on a digitalis-flower, but Jupiter got irritated by this finger-stall, and  he took it off her finger and threw it on the ground. Where it hit the ground the plant grew up. This legend has since been recreated and was now Virgin Mary, who lost her thimble, and where it hit the ground, the pretty, but poisonous plant grew up.

Practical Use:
The tall stalks of digitalis were used as a handle for umbrellas. Since the plant thrives best in a soil rich in iron and coal, new coal-fields were discovered in the earlier Sovjet Union by looking at the growth of digitalis.
Western Jutland

Today are the various substances in heart-medicine produced chemically, and the plant is no longer necessary in order to secure heart-medicine.
All substances in digitalis work upon the heart-rhytm and should only be used with professional help from a physician.

Forst Botanical Garden, Århus

Source: Anemette Olesen, Danske Klosterurter, 2001; Anemette Olesen, Marias Planter, 2007.
photo: Digitalis, Jutland: grethe bachmann

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