The Poisonous Path: Foxglove

The Poisonous Path: Foxglove

Pake Nielson

Comparison is a pernicious trick of mind one can play only on themselves. How things should and should not be are delusions, far removed from reality, and yet it's all too easy to find yourself poisoned by the image of another. We fox ourselves into thinking "I would be happy if only things were how they should be." But life isn’t something to fix. It grows. Learning to slow down and admire the progressing flowers is an art of the well-living. It's in likeness that flowers of beautiful comparison can trick us into poisonous demise. 

Welcome back to the Poisonous Path. This month we are covering Foxgloves, and its deadly constituents digitoxin and digoxin. We will cut right to the chase. These constituents are considered cardiac glycoside compounds, which can have a dangerous effect on the heart, including slowing one’s heart rate, leading to heart attacks and, ultimately, death. While Foxgloves are dangerous in large doses, we have found therapeutic value in smaller doses. Dosage is always the difference between what is and is not considered a poison. Too much of most things can quickly produce fatal results. Foxgloves have been found to assist in treating conditions such as heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms. 

Toxic levels of Foxglove start at 2.0 nanograms per millilitre of blood. Common symptoms of Foxglove poisoning are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and of course irregular heartbeat. This is due to digitoxin's and digoxin's ability to increase sodium ion and calcium ion concentrations by preventing cellular pumps from operating in cellular membranes. The disabling of these pumps results in a slowed heart rate while increasing the force of contractions and volume of blood pumped per heartbeat. A very dangerous combination indeed.

Preparations are made from the leaves of Foxgloves in the form of tinctures, infusions, fluid extracts, solid extracts, and powders. Foxgloves begin blooming in the early summer, and by mid to late summer they are ready for harvesting, both seed, and leaf. Their brightly colored, speckled, bell-shaped flowers are most commonly recognized throughout the English and Scottish isles. Often in shades of pink, white and purple, these biennial beings grow leaves and stocks in their first year and then bloom and die in the following. 

Foxgloves belong to the Plantain family, Plantaginaceae, a genus of herbaceous plants consisting of perennials, shrubs, and biennials. Foxglove's proper taxonomy (botanical name) is Plantaginaceae digitalis, however, Foxgloves are commonly known by many other names, such as Goblin Gloves, Folks' Gloves, Fairy Bells, Witches’ Gloves, and Dead Men’s Bells. It’s from Scottish and English folk that most names and lore originate. Foxgloves have a strong affiliation with fae and other central fairytales of the time.

Among the Scottish isles, it was told that the fairy folk would switch newborns with impersonators distinguishable by physical deformities. Legend remedies a rather dark way to force the fairies to give back a child. It calls for the parents to take the fairy impersonator upon a spade adorned with Foxglove extract on the ears, lip, and nose. Then the fae babe was to be flung from spade three times by the dawn of day. If the babe lived through the ordeal, they were considered to be retrieved from the fae world. If they died, they were considered to be lost forever. 

It is very unlikely for a newborn babe to be able to survive the poison of a Foxglove adornment, let alone being flung from a shovel three times. Looking back on this now, it is quite unsettling to think about. Many fairytales share such shocking motifs, and it is not uncommon to find poisonous plants intertwined in such legends. 

Kinder legends tell of fae folk teaching foxes how to ring the bell-shaped Foxglove flowers to warn the woodland life of approaching hunters. The fae have also been known to wear the flowers as dresses, and this plant makes for a popular choice among fairy gardens. It has also been used to create wards and barriers to keep witches from entering a home. Craft calls for the owner of a home to dress doorways with a poultice of Foxglove. This was said to halt the foot of an entering witch. For anyone looking to work with Foxglove, it is important to take account of its strong connections with the fae, as they are known to be vengeful trixters.

In this way, there is something to learn from the fae and Foxgloves. Nature is full of surprises. Those that hold tight to favorable comparisons, an idea of how things should be, are in for a harsh surprise. Nature has other plans, and her growth can become poisonous to those who reject their own natural beauty. Thank you for choosing the poisonous path this month, and if you ever find yourself upon the English Isles keep an eye out for fae in Foxglove gowns.

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