Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Many Faces of Foxglove

Foxgloves have always held a particular fascination for me. On the goat farm where I grew up, my parents would not allow this flower to be planted, in case one of the goats got loose and decided to go “browsing.” By forbidding this plant, it only became more alluring to me. I looked on in envy at the cottage gardens where their tall spires reigned supreme, and sighed when I saw them growing wild on the roadside.
But apparently my appreciation of foxgloves has put me in good company. There is an abundance of myths, legends, and folklore surrounding this beautiful flower.

One of the earliest mentions of the foxglove can be found in a list of flora complied during the time of Edward III. (King of England, 1327-1377.) As for where the foxglove got its name, there are a few different ideas.  Many believe that it is a corruption of “folks’ glove,” as “folks” are what our fourteenth century European ancestors called the fairies. At the time, belief in fairies was common, and so ascribing certain fairy attributes to different flora and fauna was not unusual.

In fact, the small dark dots inside the bells of the foxglove were believed to be where the fairies had pressed their fingers to leave a warning regarding the toxicity of the plant.

The second theory I discovered about the naming of the foxglove still involves the fairies, but this time it also actually involves foxes. The stories out of Norway and Wales indicate that to protect the foxes from becoming extinct, the fairies taught them to ring the bells of the foxglove to alert each other when hunters were near. Then some very naughty fairies taught the foxes to wear the bells of the flower as gloves on their feet, so that they might walk softly while hunting the farmer’s chickens.

But myths that include the foxglove go back long before the fourteenth century. The oldest story I could find is as follows:

The goddess Juno, of Roman mythology, was angry that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother. She thought that if he was able to have a child alone, she should be able to as well. She consulted with Flora, the goddess of flowers, who lightly touched Juno on the belly and breasts with a foxglove, and Juno conceived. She gave birth to the god Mars…. With only a little help from Flora and a foxglove.


Foxgloves also have made appearances in art and literature. While most of us are aware of William Wordsworth’s love of daffodils, I’ll bet not everyone knew he had made a few comments about foxgloves as well.

"My poor Babe
Was crying, as I thought, crying for bread
When I had none to give him; whereupon,
I put a slip of foxglove in his hand,
Which pleased him so, that he was hushed at once:
When, into one of those same spotted bells
A bee came darting, which the Child with joy
Imprisoned there, & held it to his ear,
And suddenly grew black, as he would die."

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

No, it’s not nearly as uplifting as Daffodils, but it does touch on the underlying danger that a foxglove brings with it.

Dr. William Withering is accredited with discovering that beneficial effects of digitalis purpurea (foxglove) in 1775, although he admits that he learned the folk remedy from “an old woman in Shropshire.” The foxglove contains a chemical compound called digitoxin which has long been used as a medication, even into modern times. It is used nowadays as a heart medication, though in the past it was used for many different illnesses, including skin issues and by midwives, earning it one of its folk names, Granny’s Gloves. However, the helpful dose is so close to the dangerous or lethal dose that it must not be used by the amateur herbalist. It is dangerously toxic, and an incorrect dosage can lead to heart palpitations, delirium, hallucinations, vomiting, and death. 

I’ve saved my favorite story for last, and it concerns an artist that we all know: Vincent Van Gogh.  Yes, it is true that a foxglove appeared in one of the paintings he did toward the end of his life (Portrait of Dr. Gachet,) but that is not the anecdote that interests me .

Legend has it that Van Gogh took digitalis to treat his epilepsy. Art historians have theorized that he might have overdone it a bit, because a possible outcome of digitalis poisoning is xanthopsia, which, according to is “A form of chromatopsia, a visual abnormality in which objects look as though they have been overpainted with an unnatural color. In xanthopsia, that color is yellow.”

Wow. I think about that, and I think about Van Gogh’s paintings. Have you ever noticed the massive amounts of yellow he used? Even the way the moon has a yellow nimbus in Starry Starry Night makes me wonder if this is the way he actually saw color, and if it might’ve been a side effect of the digitalis. Or maybe he just really liked yellow. There’s no way we’ll know, but it is still fun to speculate and look at his art, and the foxglove, in a new way.

The paintings are treasures, regardless of this theory. But it is stories like this that make me realize how the plants we see everyday have been woven into the fabric of human history, sometimes in ways we cannot even imagine. Like most of the stories and legends I found, they only made this gorgeous plant more interesting to me, and I hope to make it a star in my own cottage garden someday. After all, I have no goats to worry about…

By Lori Conkling

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