I'm finishing the week's discussion of wild plant lore with two relevant posts from the archives. Here's the second....
This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills.
Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.
Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:
"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.
"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."
Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from bewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.
In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.
For the folklore of foxes, go here.
Pictures: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), foxgloves among the flowers in a corrage garden by Jessie Willcox Smith (1865-1935), "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman, a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd, and "Rosie" by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler. Words: The Bobby J. Ward passage quotes above is from A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature (Timber Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the author and artists.