Digitalis

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings: climb with me the steep,–
Nature’s observatory–whence the dell,
In flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
‘Mongst boughs pavilion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
—-John Keats

Digitalis (Foxglove) Dallas Arboretum

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Digitalis

Dallas Blooms, Dallas Arboretum

The Foxglove now in crimson tresses rich
Depends, whose freckled bells to insect tribe
Afford a canopy of velvet bliss.

—-Wordsworth

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A chemical extract from foxglove, digitalis, is both a famous deadly poison and a precious remedy for heart disease. The difference, like everything else in life, is timing and dosage.

In digitalis the gap between poison and remedy is very, very small.

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How did it get its name?

According to the 19th-century book, English Botany, Or, Coloured Figures of British Plants:

Dr. Prior, whose authority is great in the origin of popular names, says “It seems probably that the name was in the first place, foxes’ glew, or music, in reference to the favourite instrument of an earlier time, a ring of bells hung on an arched support, the tintinnabulum”… we cannot quite agree with Dr. Prior for it seems quite probable that the shape of the flowers suggested the idea of a glove, and that associated with the name of the botanist Fuchs, who first gave it a botanical name, may have been easily corrupted into foxglove. It happens, moreover, the name foxglove is a very ancient one and exists in a list of plants as old as the time of Edward III. The “folks” of our ancestors were the fairies and nothing is more likely than that the pretty coloured bells of the plant would be designated “folksgloves,” afterwards, “foxglove.” In Wales it is declared to be a favourite lurking-place of the fairies, who are said to occasion a snapping sound when children, holding one end of the digitalis bell, suddenly strike the other on the hand to hear the clap of fairy thunder, with which the indignant fairy makes her escape from her injured retreat. In south of Scotland it is called “bloody fingers” more northward, “deadman’s bells” whilst in Wales it is known as “fairy-folks-fingers” or “lambs-tongue-leaves”

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The Scottish doctor William Withering, while working as a physician in the 18th Century, had one of his patients come to him with a very bad heart condition and since Withering had no effective treatment for him, thought he was going to die. The patient went instead to a local gypsy, took a secret herbal remedy – and survived and improved. When the doctor found out he searched out the gypsy. The herbal remedy was made from a variety of things, but the active ingredient was the purple foxglove, digitalis purpurea.

Withering tried out various formulations of digitalis plant extracts on hundreds patients, and found that the dried, powdered leaf worked with amazing and successful results. He introduced its use officially in 1785.