In the Faery Glen
on the Isle of Skye,
foxgloves stand like watchful sentinels of the Hidden People.
On Highland hillsides they march in crimson,
like the hosts of trooping faeries.
In Ireland’s wooded hollows,
glowing purple in the dusk,
foxglove is the lus na mban sidhe,
the Plant of the Faery Woman.
In Donegal, the blossoms are meíríní púca, Puck’s fingers,
or méaracan sídhe, Shilly Thimbles, Thimbles of the Sídhe.
When a foxglove bows its head, a faery is passing by.
Faeries have been seen dancing beneath them in the Welsh Marches, not so long ago.
And in Ireland, according to a story told to Yeats, they often hide under the leaves
where the casual observer mistakes their red caps for the crimson bells.
Foxgloves are also called bee-catchers and beehives in the West Country.
It is said that the path of brown and white spots on the floor of each bell are
the marks of elven fingers,
designed to lead the bee towards the nectar.
Whoever was responsible,
foxgloves have certainly been designed
with the foraging bee in mind.
Each bell has a projecting lower lip for a landing pad,
from which the bee can proceed down the illuminated runway.
The anthers of the stamens lie flat along the inside “roof” of the bell
so that its pollen rubs off on the bee’s back.
The bee then transfers the pollen to the next flower enabling it to produce seeds:
1 to 2 million from each plant.
Foxgloves have a darker side:
They belong to the dead
whose blood and bones make fertile soil.
So their blossoms are also
Dead Man’s Thimbles,
Dead Man’s Bellows, (the phallus)
or, in Scotland, ciochan nan cailleachan marblia:
Dead old woman’s paps.
In Wales they are Dead Men’s Bells.
If you hear them ringing, you will not be long for this world.
Meddle with a foxglove
and you may become faery-struck.
Yet it can also cure any misfortune caused by the faeries.
If a child is Taken and a squalling changeling left in its place,
place foxglove leaves beneath its crib.
The faeries will bring back the stolen child.
In Ireland it is lus-mor, the Great Plant,
because of its healing virtues.
And in Wales it was one of the healing herbs
taught by the faery woman of Llyn y Fan Fach to her half-human sons,
who became the famous Physicians of Myddfai. Here foxgloves are bysedd ellyllon, Fingers of the Elves.
Foxgloves are also Witches’ Fingers,
once prized by the wise women of old,
for the treatment of sores, ulcers and wounds, and all manner of ills
from the common cold to the King’s Evil,
but especially in the treatment of heart conditions.
It was a wise woman of Shropshire who taught one Dr. Withering
how to use it for cardiac complaints in the 18th century.
Today foxgloves are cultivated on huge farms in the eastern United States
solely for medicinal purposes.
Digitalis, its botanical name, means “fingers.”
Foxgloves by Mary Webb
The foxglove bells, with lolling tongue,
Will not reveal what peals were rung
In Faery, in Faery,
A thousand ages gone.
All the golden clappers hang
As if but now the changes rang;
Only from the mottled throat
Never any echoes float.
Quite forgotten, in the wood,
Pale, crowded steeples rise;
All the time that they have stood
None has heard their melodies.
Deep, deep in wizardry
All the foxglove belfries stand.
Should they startle over the land,
None would know what bells they be.
Never any wind can ring them,
Nor the great black bees that swing them–
Every crimson bell, down-slanted,
Is so utterly enchanted.