Welsh, Menyg ellyllon, Bysedd cochion, Bysedd y cwn, Ffion dail, Ffion firwyth. - French, Gants de notre dame, Doigts de la Vierge. - German, Fingerhut. - Italian, Aralda. - Spanish, Dedalera. - Danish, Fingerbor, Vingerhoed.
The foxglove is, as Gerarde tells us, "good for them that have fallen from high places," but the old herbalist, in his simplicity, does not explain whether the healing to which he alludes is for cases of a moral or a physical character, so that we are at liberty to experimentalise with the plant for either. Premising however, that, though considered by modern practitioners a most dangerous medicine, on account of its positive effect in depressing the action of the heart; it was, in the time of Gerarde, highly esteemed for coughs, as well as for all maladies of the spleen and liver. It is also, as Blanchard tells us, employed by the country people of Somersetshire, in fevers; for which "some confide very much in the flowers;" and putting a "great many of them in May butter they set them in the sun," while "others mingling them with lard, put them underground for forty days, and then apply them as an ointment" in cases of the king's evil. Others, mixing two handsful of the leaves with four ounces of the oak fern (polopodium dryopteris), stew the whole in beer, and drink it for various complaints; hence the old Italian proverb:
"Aralda Tutte le piaghe salda".
At present its use is almost confined to cases of mental excitement, or of pulmonary consumption, in which, however, it is not often administered, though its re-introduction, not many years ago, into regular practice by Dr. Withering, rendered it for a time, a too fashionable medicine.
The Welsh peasant dyers use an infusion of the foxglove-root as a preparation before dyeing woollen yarn, thus enabling it to take the colour desired, with better effect.
In nearly all places where the plant occurs, it is known by some name referring to its finger-like, glove-like, or thimble-like blossom, that:
* * "rears its pyramid of bells, Gloriously freckled, purpled, and white:" and nothing can be more absurd than the statement, copied with a fidelity worthy of a better cause, from book to book, that its English name of foxglove, is derived from the name bestowed upon it by the German botanist, Fuchs, Digitalis Fuchsii,*
* Fuchs bestowed the botanical name of digitalis, perhaps from digitabulum, a sort of finger-glove, or cap, used in gathering olives, in order to accord with the popular names Fuchius's glove, Fuch's glove, corrupted into foxglove. It so happens, however, that the English name of folk's-glove, the proper designation, exists in a list of plants, as old as the time of Edward III., while Fuchs flourished in the sixteenth century, and doubtless it was of far older date, modern corruption alone having changed it into "foxglove." The proper term of folk's-glove, i.e., glove of the folks, fair-family, or fairies, or perhaps, even folk's-love, refers to the many superstitions (commencing with its being the sacred plant of the Druids, used in their midsummer sacrifices) attached to this plant, which the peasant declares to be a favourite lurking-place of the fairies, who, in the mythology of South Wales, are said to occasion the snapping sound made when children hold one end of the digitalis bell, and strike the hand suddenly down on the other end to hear the clap of fairy thunder, with which the indignant little fairy is supposed to make its escape from its injured retreat.
In the south of Scotland, it is called "bloody-fingers," more northward, "deadmen's bells;" while in the neighbourhood of Greenland, it is called "King's-ell-wand, or, "King Edward's-ell-wand," probably in allusion to some legend or tradition. Amongst the Flemish colonists of Wales, it is known as "fairy-folk's-fingers," or, "lamb's-tongue leaves;" amongst the Welsh themselves, it bears the several names of elves-gloves (menyg .ellyllon), red-fingers then prevalent throughout Europe. Botanists have confounded cause and effect (bysedd cochion), finger-tops (bysedd y cwn), crimson-leaves (ffion dail), and crimson vigour, power, or strength (ffion ffrwyth). In France, the sacred character attributed to it takes a more modern form in the name of gants de notre dame, or as it was formerly written, "gantes nostre dame," and doigts de la Vierge.
Of this grand and stately plant, which, not un-frequently, attains to a height of seven or eight feet, we have but one species; but we occasionally meet with specimens which have white instead of purple bells; and another variety has its purple of a coppery or metallic hue, giving it a peculiar richness of colouring; the value of which may be appreciated by comparing together, the plumage of the common peacock, and that of the bronze-winged or Japan peacock, when in proximity; the rich colour of the last taking greatly from that which we otherwise admire in the plumage of the common bird.
In the countless lines of poetry, dedicated to the striking beauty of the foxglove, poets have not failed to introduce the characteristic manner in which the blossoms, one by one fall off, apparently in their full freshness and bloom, commencing at the lowermost, and gradually mounting to the highest. Wordsworth, as usual, speculates, and applies metaphysics to this appearance, until he produces an impression of hortus siccus-lik.e precision:
"Thro' quaint obliquities I might pursue These cravings; when the foxglove, one by one, Upwards, through every stage of the tall stem Had shed beside the public way its bells,
And stood of all dismantled, save the last Left at the tapering ladder's top, that seem'd To bend, as doth a slender blade of grass Tipped with a rain-drop;" while Coleridge, with the fresh spirit of a child, dips his pencil in the hue of nature, and sketches lightly, the following exquisite word-picture:
"The foxglove tall Sheds its loose purple bells, or in the gust, Or when it bends beneath the upspringing lark, Or mountain-finch alighting".
This is a picture which one of our living painters, in his less conventional days, before he drew primroses in the green tints which they assume on being dried between sheets of blotting paper, or clothed his broken banks with supernatural lichens, or solitary and rootless violet-leaves, might have delineated; but the united genius and fidelity of a Robins alone could have done it justice.