The Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) chose Orkney as its north-most natural post. 1
I’ve been watching the foxgloves out of the kitchen window. They have made remarkable trumpeted bolts up the far wall of the kirk green. On a day of dark skies and bright sunlight I decided to make a portrait of them. Among her purple sisters, a small single ghostly white foxglove grows.
It is one of the plants believed unlucky to be kept indoors. I certainly felt it to be a spooky specimen to work with in the darkroom when I made a photogram of one last year.
This poisonous plant carries supernatural capital, associated as it is with witches and trows. Witches were believed to wear foxglove flowers on their fingers. 2
In Orkney their name trowie-girse or trowie-gliv (glove) bears out the connection.
In the borders foxglove leaves in the cradle kept new-born babies from being bewitched. An accusation of witchcraft fell on Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623 after she confessed to accidentally poisoning a changeling child with foxglove leaves. 3 The foxglove can harm or heal.
‘The foxglove has been known by at least twenty names including dead men’s bells, bloody bells, witches’ thimbles, foxters, focksterrie, foxtree, fairy’s thimbles, Scotch Mercury and ciochan nan cailleachan marblic (dead old woman’s paps).’ – Flora Celtica
Makes you wonder about the name foxglove, could it be folks glove? As in the little folk. In the language of flowers the foxglove’s dual potential to hurt or heal evolved to mean ’insincerity’, a poisoned message.
It is a widely used medicinal plant. In Gaelic traditional medicine foxgloves are recorded as a remedy for dropsy. Chopped foxglove leaves with onion or garlic in butter was used as a poultice for bad knees or diphtheria. Moistened leaves applied to the skin were a valued remedy for the ‘rose’ (skin condition) or boils. A hot poultice of crushed foxglove roots was used in an Inverness-Shire treatment for internal swellings or growths.4
In modern medicine the plant’s leaves provide the drug digitalis, used for heart disorders.
Remember this plant is poisonous.
1 Orkney book of Wildflowers, Tim Dean & Anne Bignall see here
2 Flora Celtica: Plants and People in Scotland, William Milliken & Sam Bridgewater
3 Flora Celtica: Plants and People in Scotland, William Milliken & Sam Bridgewater
4 Healing Threads, Traditional medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Mary Beith