Why foxgloves are called foxgloves
The tall, colourful spires that tower over cottage garden borders in June have a wealth of stories behind them. And no wonder really. They are fascinatingly paradoxical - digitalis is a deadly poison but is used in life-saving heart medicine; beautiful - the pretty, bell-shaped flowers, are dappled with spots inside… All in all, they are simply crying out for a fairytale backstory, and folklore has provided generously.
Some stories have told that the word ‘foxglove’ is merely a misrepresentation of ‘folk’s glove’, ie gloves little people might wear.
Another says that the gloves do indeed belong to foxes and that fairies gave them to the foxes to put on their paws to enable them to sneak silently into the hen house without being heard.This story is echoed in the belief that the mottled spots inside the flowers are actually fairy handprints. DNA evidence will always catch you out in the end, fairies.
What fairies have against hens we aren’t sure, but perhaps it was more to do with being fans of foxes than enemies of friends. Because another tale goes that the bell-shaped flowers would make a magical noise when rung and the fairies taught foxes to ring the bells of foxgloves to warn other foxes when a fox hunt was nearby.
The botanist RCA Prior thought that the name came from foxes-glew, meaning ‘folks’ music’, supporting the ‘bell’ theory, but this idea has been debunked by etymologists [https://blog.oup.com/2010/11/foxglove/].
Indeed, the argument becomes more complex when you take into account that the foxglove is known by several different names, including todtail (fox tail)’, dead men’s bells, ladies’ fingers, bunny rabbits, floppy dock and dragon’s mouth.
So who knows where the name originated. But if the glove fits...
In our June issue, we have a feature on Anne-Marie Curtin’s cut flower garden, where the beautiful foxgloves above were grown (foragefor.co.uk).
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