We have not seen our grandchildren now for almost four months. My wife and I have (briefly) considered separating so that we can create our own separate social bubbles, so bizarre has the current situation become. We have to make do with videos and photos but one thing that has gratified us is their discovery and love of nature. Last weekend we received a picture of them standing in front of an impressive Digitalis purprea, foxglove to you and me. The photo came with a request for grandad to tell them why the plant is called a fox glove because it looks neither like a fox nor a glove nor are its distinctive bell shaped flowers big enough to be used as a glove by a fox.
A royal command cannot be ignored, so here goes.
Their puzzlement is shared by the poet, Christina Rossetti. In the second and final stanza of her poem, The Peacock, published in her 1872 collection of nursery rhymes and children’s verse entitled Sing-Song, she recognised the difficulty in interpreting the plant’s name literally; “no dandelions tell the time,/ although they turn to clocks;/ cat’s-cradle does not hold the cat,/ nor foxglove fit the fox”.
As a name to describe the Digitalis purprea foxglove has an impressive pedigree, dating back to Anglo Saxon times, when it was known as foxes glofa. No one has successfully and incontrovertibly explained why it was so called, although the glove part does seem settled. The shape of the flowers do look like fingers, a feature recognised in the botanical name, digitalis being an adjective derived from the Latin word for a finger, digitus. The plant’s similarity with something worn on the hands is ecoed in French where it is known as gantelée, meaning little glove, and in the German fingerhut, a thimble.
But why a fox?
The Norwegian word for the plant is revbielde which means foxbell, which suggests there may be a Viking influence in its name. There have been some charming stories developed to explain the association of a fox with a foxglove, not least that a crafty fox, they are always characterised as sly, put the bells of a foxglove flower on to his feet to muffle their sound so that he could creep up on some chickens. Another version of the tale credits the suggestion to an evil fairy.
There is a long association between the foxglove and fairies. This has led some, including the aptly named William Fox, to concoct an elaborate theory suggesting that fox is a corruption of folk’s. In his English Etymologies, published in 1847, Fox wrote, “in Welsh this flower is called by the beautiful name of maneg ellyllon or the fairies’ glove. Now, in the days of our ancestors, as everyone knows, these little elves were called in English “the good folks””. Fox concluded that the flowers were originally called the good folk’s gloves and then abbreviated to fox gloves. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that the Anglo Saxons believed in fairies and this all may be a bit of convenient retro-fitting.
Perhaps we are on firmer ground when we remember that many plants bear the names of animals with which they have little or no association. You just need to think of fowl’s bean, cowslip, ox-heal, dog rose, wolfsbane, catmint and hound’s fennel. There is a fox grass. It may just be that our ancestors named the plant after one of the indigenous creatures. Digitalis had a number of variant names through the centuries including fox-fingers, ladies’ fingers and dead-men’s bells.
My take on this is that there is no particular association between digitalis and a fox, that it may have been so called in accordance with a naming convention that associated plants with indigenous animals and that if there is any more deep rooted explanation, it is lost in the mists of time.
The foxglove is one of my favourite flowers. Just enjoy it for what it is.