Thursday, August 27, 2015

Foxglove: A Study

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The foxglove is a quintessential cottage flower that grows wild here in the Pacific Northwest.  It is a flower that baffles me.  In studying the language of flowers I am finding most flower dictionaries prescribe the sentiment of 'insincerity' to this handsome flower. Such a hurtful sentiment.  I understand that with the language of flowers not all flowers can have rosy, sweet meanings but how can any flower be 'insincere?'  Let's dive into the history of the foxglove and see what we find.  The language of flowers is a bit subjective so perhaps after the study we will redefine the foxglove. 

Diana Wells' book 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names lists some of the common names for Digitalis as foxglove, fairy-bells, and ladies' thimble.  She suggests 'foxglove' comes from the Old English foxes glofa meaning foxes' glove.  The myth being that foxes wore magical gloves to sneak in to raid the chicken coop. Cunning, shrewd little foxes using the bells of the foxglove as gloves to soften and quiet their attacks but does this make the flower 'insincere?'  'Self-ambition' is an alternative suggestion for the foxglove's symbolism given by Shane Connolly in The Secret Language of Flowers: Rediscovering Traditional Meanings.  I hesitate to accept 'self-ambition' as its meaning because are not the foxes the ones with 'self-ambition' and not the flower itself?

In The Language of Flowers by Sheila Pickles picks up the fairy theme by suggesting that the name foxgloves is "a corruption of Folk's-gloves." Folks being the little fairies.  Fairies-petticoats, fairy-caps and fairies-dresses are among the many common names. "If you see a foxglove bending over, it is because the fairies are hiding in the bells."  A story also goes that if you picked a foxglove you would offend the fairy folk. 

Pickles reminds us that there is a darker side to the foxglove.  For years foxglove was used as a herbal tea to treat dropsy but it was well known that foxgloves would kill or cure.  Foxglove is noxious with an overdose causing "nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as sometimes resulting in xanthopsia (jaundiced or yellow vision) and the appearance of blurred outlines (halos), drooling, abnormal heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, weakness, collapse, dilated pupils, tremors, seizures, and even death."*  One will notice that most animals, aside from the nimble bee, steer well clear of these flowers.  Perhaps this is why other common names for the foxglove are bloody fingers, witches' gloves, and 'dead men's bells.  "To hear them ring forebodes an early death." Here I can understand the sentiment of 'insincerity'.  But there is more to tell of the foxglove's story.

In 1785 a British physician, William Withering, first wrote of the medical uses of foxglove in An Account of the Foxglove.  From this ground breaking research a group of medicines made from the plant's seeds and dried leaves called digitalin were developed to treat heart conditions and are still in use today.  How then can foxglove be claimed as emblematic of 'insincerity' when it has the ability to aid in the healing of heart conditions? 

Fortunately three early floral language dictionaries provide an alternative to 'insincerity.'  Henry Phillips Floral Emblems suggests foxglove be the symbol of  'youth.' In his explanation for youth he says, "The light down which covers the stalks of this plant, induced the poets to make it the emblem of youth."  I like this emblem of youth as I consider myself an amateur poet.  Many of the common names that follow the fairy theme seem to me to carry a youthful outlook.  One may even stretch to say that the medicine that the foxglove provides gives one a return to 'youth.'  This may be a stretch indeed so let's look at the last sentiment of the foxglove.

The French author, Pierre Zaccone writes in Nouveau Langage des Fleurs : avec la nomenclature des sentiments dont chaque fleur est le symbole, et leur emploi pour l'expression des pensées that the foxglove is the symbol of 'travail' meaning 'work.'  My rough translation of his explanation is "Plant is thus named because its flower reminds one of figure sewing, hence the symbol it represents. There are two kinds of foxglove: white foxglove and purple foxglove.  Administered a high dose it becomes soothing narcotic for certain conditions."  The last sentence there makes me feel quite uneasy as we have learned how toxic foxglove is especially at high doses.  Being that it that this was written in 1853 clearly the understanding of foxgloves' noxious nature was not widespread knowledge.  'Travail' or work is an apt sentiment to the foxglove.  We see Wells' common name of ladies thimbles working during sewing, the work of the medicine, digitalin, in heart disease, and finally this study itself certainly was some work.


*See Wikipedia article: Digitalis