Plant Lore: Foxgloves
Stalks of white, purple, and pink flowers wave in the sea breeze. Their cup-like flowers hang like bells, and bees dart among them. These are foxgloves, my latest plant obsession not only because they’re physically beautiful and unusual but because of their rich folkloric history in the UK and Ireland. And they have the most delightful names: Witches Thimbles, Bee-Catchers, Dragon’s Mouth, Fairy’s Bells, Poppers, among so many others. In Scotland, you might hear them called Foxters or Bluidy Fingers.
Foxgloves are often associated with fairies and even feared. These flowers could be considered unlucky and forbidden from being taken into the home. White foxgloves growing in a garden foretold a death in the family. These flowers have a dark lore associated with infanticide – it was believed that you could identify a changeling by giving it drops of foxglove juice. If the child died, it was proved to be a changeling fairy child.
In fact, foxgloves do contain a chemical called digitalis, which can cause heart attacks. However, digitalis is also used in modern medicine to treat heart conditions – so this flower is very much a paradox. Sometimes lucky, sometimes foretelling death. Sometimes healing, sometimes poisonous. The main character of my new novel The Bone Diver has second sight, so I’ve given her a garden filled with white and purple foxglove.
Digitalis puts me in the mind of the fairy tale motif of the fairy ointment, a narrative trope in which a human accidentally gains the ability to see fairies (often only in one eye, and often because they’ve accidentally gotten fairy ointment in it). The unfortunate human is often struck blind in one or both eyes by a fairy wanting to keep their fairy secrets secure. ‘A Close Tongue’, found in Daniel Allison’s Scottish Myths and Legends is an example of such a story. 'The Midwife to the Trow' from 'Shetland Folk Tales' is another.
For more plant lore, I recommend Vickery’s Folk Flora, “an encyclopedic guide to plant folklore” of British and Irish plans. Check out also @theloresofnature on TikTok. I personally love her series on the plant lore of Studio Ghibli films.
Hatfield, Gabrielle. Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A–Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants: By Roy Vickery. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. ISBN 978-1-47460-462-8.
Allison, Daniel. Scottish Myths & Legends, 2020. ISBN 978-1-8380403-1-4.
Tulloch, Lawrence. Shetland Folk Tales. The History Press, 2014.
Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh. In 2020, she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Her doctoral thesis was a fantasy novel, called The Grief Nurse, and a collection of essays on grief, madness and language. The Grief Nurse has been shortlisted for the First Novel Prize 2021 and The Bridge Awards Emerging Writer Award in 2020. Angie is represented by Robbie Guillory from Kate Nash Literary Agency.