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A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literatureby Bobby J. Ward
The glove of the wee people
The twenty species of foxglove are distributed naturally in Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. They are biennial and perennial members of the Scrophulariaceae or figwort family. Foxgloves commonly found in gardens include Digitalis purpurea, with its purple-spotted throat; D. lutea, the yellow or straw foxglove; and D. grandiflora, with apricot-pink flowers, and its numerous cultivars. Less common are the rusty foxglove, D. ferruginea, and D. lanata, the Grecian foxglove of the Mediterranean. One species from the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain is D. dubia, named because of the original doubt that it was a true foxglove.
The genus name, derived from the Latin word for finger, digitus, alludes to the flower's resemblance to a glove or finger. The plant was so named by Leonhard Fuchs in 1542. In 1629 John Parkinson wrote, "We call them generally foxglove in English but some (as thinking it to be too foolish a name) do call them finger-flowers, because they are like unto the fingers of a glove, the ends cut off." The English name foxglove appears to be a corruption of folk's-glove, the glove of the fairies or wee people. But some suggest that such a correlation is silly. The plant is also called fairy-fingers, and regardless of the etymological origin, these quaint names richly provide the plant with legends. In some areas the plant is known as fox fingers, and associated stories suggest that the flowers are the gloves worn by foxes to keep dew off their paws.
To northern Europeans, however, the shape of the flowers did not suggest a glove or finger, but rather a bell. An old Norwegian legend refers to digitalis as fox-bell (revbjölla) in the belief that when foxes wore them, the eerie sound of the bell would scare away hunters who collected fox tails for good luck. The English name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, gleow being the word for a musical instrument of rings of bells. The plant has also been variously known as witches' thimbles and fairy caps. The plant is known in French legends as les gants de Notre Dame, the gloves of the Virgin. In German, an old name for foxglove is fingerhut, for thimble.
A rhyme by William Browne of Tavistock maintained the thought of foxgloves as gloves, which were being sought by Pan for his mistress:
To keep her slender fingers from the sunne
Pan through the pastures oftentimes hath runne,
To pluck the speckled foxglove from their stemme
And on those fingers neatly placed them.
The flower made English poet Abraham Cowley think of gloves, too: "The foxglove on fair Flora's hand is worn/Lest while she gathers flowers she meets a thorn," But Christina Rossetti, taking a more realistic view, wrote in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book of the improbable names of plants and animals, ending,
No dandelions tell the time,
Although they turn to clocks;
Cat's cradle does not hold the cat,
Nor foxgloves fit the fox.
Some species of digitalis are the source of the modern cardiac stimulant digitalin, a powerful glycoside that is used in the treatment of heart disease. But English apothecary Nicholas Culpeper said in the seventeenth century that it was used as a cure for "scabby heads" and as a remedy for king's evil or scrofula, an inflammation of the lymph glands, which from the time of Edward the Confessor could supposedly be cured only by the king or queen.
The medicinal properties of digitalis have been known for centuries. However, an old Welsh legend claims to be the first to prescribe 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 thirteenth-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 arose 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, and 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 young man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon that 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 the fields 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 the foxglove, with full directions for their use and their healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.
In the second part of the book-length poem The Botanic Garden (1791), Erasmus Darwin described Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health or hygiene, in the garb of the digitalis:
Divine Hygeia, from the bending sky
Assumes bright Digitalis' dress and air,
Her ruby cheek, white neck, and raven hair.
Four youths protect her from the circling throng,
And like the Nymph the Goddess steps along.
Darwin added in a footnote that foxglove was used to cure dropsy "where the legs and thighs are much swelled" in those "people past the meridian of their life." This cure was applied in Silas Marner (1861), George Eliot's story of a linen weaver, when Silas treats a cobbler's wife suffering from dropsy, "Recalling the relief his mother had found from a simple preparation of foxglove."
The foxglove has accumulated several symbolic meanings. Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, a poem in six cantos published in 1810, includes a note on foxglove: "Fox-glove and nightshade, side by side,/Emblems of punishment and pride." And in the language of flowers, foxglove suggested both insincerity and "a wish."
For centuries poets have been fascinated by the bell-shaped foxglove and have often included it in their floral descriptions. Christina Rossetti described the tall foxglove in "A Bride Song":
Through the vales to my love!
Where the turf is so soft to the feet
And the thyme makes it sweet,
And the stately foxglove
Hangs silent its exquisite bells.
In the late 1800s Thomas Edward Brown wrote "White Foxglove" in which he addressed the flower, but it shrank away and did not respond:
White foxglove, by an angle in the wall,
No vulgar bees
Consult you, wondering
If such a dainty thing
Can give them ease.
In Poetical Works (1821), a collection by John Keats, a sonnet describes a place "Where the deer's swift leap/Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell." In Coleridge's "The Keepsake" (1817), the passing of summer is marked when
the foxglove tall
Sheds its loose purple bells, or in the gust,
Or when it bends beneath the upspringing lark,
Or mountain-finch alighting.
In book 8 of The Prelude, Wordsworth, reflecting on his youthful poetic faculties, wrote of the same season:
Through quaint obliquities I might pursue
These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one
Upwards through every stage of the tall stem
Had shed beside the public way its bells,
And stood of all dismantled, save the last
Left at the tappering ladder's top, that seemed
To bend as doth a slender blade of grass.
Many poets have been struck by the beauty of foxgloves. Shakespeare overlooked the distinctive flower, probably because it is not common in the Midlands. But Jean Ingelow, Victorian poet and children's author, wrote in "Divided" (1863) of foxgloves as an integral part of the natural landscape:
An empty sky, a world of heather,
Purple of foxglove, yellow of broom;
We two among them wading together,
Shaking out honey, treading perfume.
In his elegy "In Memoriam" (1833, published in 1850) to friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly at the age of twenty-two of a cerebral hemorrhage, Tennyson expressed a profound sense of loss and regret for his friend's death and looked expectantly to the return of the new year to "burst the frozen bud":
Bring orchis, bring the foxglove spire,
The little speedwell's darling blue,
Deep tulips dash'd with fiery dew,
Laburnums, dropping-wells of fire
Through all the long history of the plant, tall foxgloves have graced the back borders of gardens. On a quiet spring evening one can almost hear the sound of little bells tinkling at one's feet.
A diadem of gold, and richly grac'd
Fritillaries, with bell-shaped flowers, are members of the Liliaceae. The bulbous, perennial species of Fritillaria are native to the Northern Hemisphere and are found in the Mediterranean region, Asia, and western North America.
The genus name Fritillaria is derived from the Latin fritillius, meaning dice box, an allusion to the doubled, truncated cone, almost boxlike, shape of the flower, such as in the common European species, F. meleagris. The common name of this species is guinea flower, because its spotted markings resemble those of the guinea hen; meleagris is the Latin word for that fowl. An elegant species native to Turkey, F. imperialis is called the crown imperial, because of its vague resemblance to a monarch's crown and because it was first grown in the Imperial Gardens in Vienna; its bulbs have a musky scent strongly resembling that of a fox. A more diminutive species is F. michailovskyi, whose flowers are a curious mauve-brown and yellow. In some herbals the fritillary was called a tulip or a checkered daffodil.
According to a central European legend, the crown imperial grew in the Garden of Gethsemane and at one time had a white bloom. During the agony and prayers of Jesus, all flowers bowed their heads to the earth except the crown imperial; it alone remained upright. As Jesus was led away he looked at the flower that was not bowing, and contrition filled its heart. Ever since then, the crown imperial has humbly bent its head, and its white petals, now reddish, have borne the blush of shame.
A story from ancient Persia tells of a queen who was so beautiful that she made the king jealous. In a rage he unjustly banished her from the palace. But a compassionate angel rooted the queen's feet in the soil and changed her into the crown imperial so that her dignity and beauty would still command the respect and affection they had before her transformation.
The theme of fritillary as royalty has been used in numerous poetic works. An unknown author penned these beautiful lines in "The Imperial Flower":
This lily's height bespeaks command,
A fair, imperial flower;
She seems designed for Flora's hand,
The scepter of her power.
René Rapin expanded the royal metaphor:
Then her gay gilded Front th' Imperial-Crown
Erects aloft, and with a scornful Frown
O'erlooks the subject Plants, while humbly they
Wait round. and Homage to her Highness pay;
Beneath the Summit of her Stem is plac'd
A Diadem of Gold, and richly grac'd.
Then verdant Leaves in bushy Plumes arise,
And crisp'd and curling entertain the Eyes;
Beneath these Leaves four radiant Blossoms bent
Like painted Cups revers'd are downward sent
No Flow'rs aspire in Pomp and State more high,
Or lays a juster Claim to Majesty.
Conversely, George Herbert, a deeply religious poet of the early seventeenth century, in "Peace" (1633) used the crown imperial to show the decay of royal rule:
Then went I to a garden and did spy a gallant flower,
The Crown Imperial: sure, said I,
Peace at the root must dwell;
But when I digged I saw a worm devour
What shewed so well.
Mary Botham Howitt wrote in "The Wild Fritillary,"
Like a drooping thing of sorrow,
Sad to-day, more sad to-morrow;
Like a widow dark weeds wearing,
Anguish in her bosom bearing.
Like a joy my memory knoweth —
In my native fields it groweth;
Like the voice of one long parted,
Calling to the faithful-hearted;
Like an expected pleasure
That hath neither stint nor measure;
Like a bountiful good fairy,
Do I hail, Fritillary.
John Langhorne wrote of the fritillary in Fables of Flora in a poem titled "The Queen of the Meadow and the Crown Imperial." He described it as a flower of "haughty mien":
In all the pomp of eastern state,
In all the eastern glory gay,
He bade with nature pride elate
Each flower of humbler birth obey.
And the fritillary speaks,
"In climes of orient glory born,
Where beauty first and empire grew;
Where first unfolds the golden morn,
Where richer falls the fragrant dew.
Then lowly bow, ye British flowers!
Confer your monarch's mighty sway,
And own the only glory yours,
When fear flies trembling to obey."
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