digitalis / foxglove

Another showy plant of the season: digitalis, or foxglove, blooming now in several locations close to my house in Palo Alto:

Cultivars of the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. The etymology of the Latin name is straightforward, but the common name foxglove presents a puzzle.

On the plants, from Wikipedia:

Digitalis  … is a genus of about 20 species of herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and biennials commonly called foxgloves. This genus was traditionally placed in the figwort family Scrophulariaceae, but recent phylogenetic research has placed it in the much enlarged family Plantaginaceae. This genus is native to western and southwestern Europe, western and central Asia, Australasia and northwestern Africa. The scientific name means “finger-like” and refers to the ease with which a flower of Digitalis purpurea can be fitted over a human fingertip. [And purpurea is Latin for ‘purple’.] The flowers are produced on a tall spike, are tubular, and vary in color with species, from purple to pink, white, and yellow. The best-known species is the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. This biennial plant is often grown as an ornamental plant due to its vivid flowers which range in color from various purple tints through various shades of light gray, and to purely white. The flowers can also possess various marks and spottings.

… The term digitalis is also used for drug preparations that contain cardiac glycosides, particularly one called digoxin, extracted from various plants of this genus.

OED2 on the etymology of foxglove:

The reason for the second part of the name is obvious, as the flower resembles a finger-stall in shape; compare the Latin name. Why the plant was associated with the fox is not so clear; but compare Norwegian revbjelde = ‘fox bell’.

Wikipedia offers 19th-century speculations about the botanist Leonhart Fuchs (massively unlikely because of the age of the word, which is attested from Old English on; Fuchs did coin the Latin name digitalis in 1542 and had the flower fuchsia and the color fuchsia named after him, but Fuchs glove as the source of foxglove is a total loser) and about the possibility that the name was originally foxes’ glew ‘music’ or folksgloves, referring to the fairy folk. Others have cited “an old myth that foxes must have used the flowers to magically sheath their paws as they stealthily made their nocturnal raids into the poultry yards of rural folk. The association is natural for the foxgloves grew on the wooded hillside slopes that foxes chose for their dens.”

Cooler heads, less given to imaginative speculation, treat the etymology as an unsolved mystery, as the OED does, cagily.


One Response to “digitalis / foxglove”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Will Parsons on Google+:

    One thing you may want to note is that this plant is exceptionally poisonous…

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