Friday, June 30, 2006

Fairy Flower: Foxglove

Foxglove, Foxglove,What do you see?"
The cool green woodland,The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,I've honey here for thee!
"Foxglove, Foxglove,What see you now?"
The soft summer moonlight
On bracken, grass, and bough;
And all the fairies dancing
As only they know how.
The Song of the Foxglove Fairy
Cecily M. Barker

During the time of Midsummer when the fairies are active, I wanted to feature a flower frequently associated with them: the foxglove, which is blooming now in my neighborhood. Like hollyhocks and snapdragons, the foxglove has been a favorite toy of children for centuries (although it is poisonous and thus its use must be supervised). The bell-shaped flowers fit on a child’s fingers like a glove.

The name foxglove may be a corruption of Folks Glove (meaning the gloves of the Folk or fairies) although there is a story that the fairies gave foxgloves to foxes so that they could wear them on their feet and slip into henhouses more quietly. The common name in Norwegian is Revbield, or foxbell.

Other names for the plant include Witches' Gloves, Dead Men's Bells, Fairy's Gloves, Gloves of Our Lady or the Virgin’s Gloves (in France). Bloody Fingers, Fairy Caps (in Ireland), Fairy’s Petticoats (in Cheshire), and Fairy Thimbles. The more negative names may come from a recognition of the poisonous nature of the plant, or from its mottled appearance.The German name is Fingerhut which means “thimble” which is why Fuchs, the 16th century German herbalist, gave it the Latin name of digitalis (for digit, that is finger).

In Scotland, it is the badge of the Farquharsons. Often medieval knights wore a sprig of a plant as a token to indicate their fealty. The Plantagenet kings used a sprig of genesta. The Stuarts had a thistle as an emblem. Do you know the floral badge of your family?

Medieval herbalists used the leaves externally and the Welsh rubbed the leaves on the stone carvings of their floors to bring out the design, But the foxglove has become most famous for its internal use as digitalis, a powerful heart medicine. Rodale’s tells the story of how Dr. William Withering discovered its efficacy in 1775. He had visited a woman with dropsy and found her so ill that he expected her to die within days. When he heard that she had fully recovered by drinking a herbal tea, he studied the tea and identified the active ingredient, foxglove, responsible for her recovery. In 1785, he published his findings in a report called An Account of the Foxglove, which encouraged other doctors to prescribe the plant. According to Martin he eventually married a young woman who he was able to cure of heart disease with foxglove.

As usual Mrs. M. Grieve provides a comprehensive look at the plant:

Foxglove is a biennial which means it will not bloom the first year it is planted. Instead it produces a rosette of fuzzy leaves. In the second year, it sends up a stalk which in June and July features the long, bell-shaped flowers.

Foxgloves thrive in areas with high concentrations of iron and coal. In the Soviet Union, prospectors looking for coal fields would simply look for masses of foxgloves.

Martin writes that in the language of flowers, foxglove means insincerity, but Seaton lists the following meanings: salubrity, youth and a wish.

Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987
Seaton, Beverly,The Language of Flowers: A History, University of Virginia Press 1995

The foxglove fairy comes from Prints with a Past:


kerrdelune said...

I absolutely adore foxgloves, their varied colours, their imposing stature and their freckles - one of the many wonders of the flower world.

Johnny Reb said...

Interesting blog. Keep up the good work.


Johnny Reb