#39 Foxglove

Foxgloves in the White Garden at Sissinghurst-- EKS

Digitalis purpurus is one of  the most common hedgerow plants in England and its spires are a staple in the backs of cottage gardens.  Both the Latin name and the common English one refer to how the individual blossoms resemble human fingers, digits, or their coverings, gloves.  There is some confusion as to how foxes come in to the picture; as Christina Rossetti noted in her Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, flower names are often confusing: dandelions do not tell the time though they are called clocks, cat’s cradles do not hold cats, “Nor foxgloves fit the fox” (qtd by Ward 148). The usual solution is to assume that “fox” is a corruption of “folk’s” and to associate the flowers with gloves worn by fairies: folk’s gloves. Another derivation maintains the term “glove” is the one that has been altered, suggesting that it comes from the Anglo Saxon word, gliew , the name for “a ring of bells hung on an arched support--a tintinnabulum” (Folkard 182).  This is the association Rossetti summons in “A Bride Song, when she refers to “the stately foxglove” which “hangs silent its exquisite bells.”  In his Sonnet VII, “To Solitude,” Keats similarly speaks of the “deer’s swift leap” startling “the wild bee from the foxglove bell” (ll 7-8).

Digitalis is, of course, medically famed for its use in “reducing the frequency and force of the heart action” (Watt 154). Like all powerful medicants, its effects can be dangerous as well as curative, which may account for the ambivalence of its associations.  In the Victorian language of flowers, foxgloves signify “Insincerity” (Greenaway 18). A passage in Wordsworth’s “The Borderers” exemplifies this ambiguity: the Beggar tells of a dream in which his child, delighted by a foxglove, entraps a bee inside the flower but then suddenly “grew black, as he would die” (Act I, p. 40 of The Complete Works of Wordsworth, GoogleBooks)

For Woolf, foxgloves exist primarily as inhabitants of cottage gardens, usually seen in Sussex or Cornwall.  Twice she mentions planting them at Asham: first in an April 1913 letter to Vanessa when she is planning to set them out with wallflowers (L2 24), and then in a diary entry of October 1917, when she mentions working all afternoon planting the garden path with “wallflowers, daisies, and foxgloves” (D1 55).  

Foxgloves appear only two times in Woolf’s fiction, as bells accompanied by the bees from Wordsworth and Keats, swinging in cottage gardens on the cliffs of Cornwall in Jacob’s Room (1922). In the first instance, looking out from her scullery window, watching a steamer “probably bound for Cardiff,” Mrs. Pascoe notices that “one bell of a foxglove swings to and fro with a bumble-bee for clapper” (JR 52).  A few pages later, Mrs. Durrant’s mind seems almost to imitate the bee, as she casts it “Forwards and backwards. . . as if the roofless cottages, mounds of slag, and cottage gardens overgrown with foxglove and bramble cast shade upon her mind” (56).

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...