a foxglove tale

In Anglo-Saxon days a favorite musical instrument was a gliew, an arched support hung with bells of varying tones; and this tall flower-stalk hung with pendent bell-shaped blossoms became the foxes-glew, then carelessly foxes-glow, and as that seemed meaningless it turned easily into foxes-glove. . .

. . . For many centuries the plant has been known to those northern folk as “foxbells,” and a legend from Norway explains why.

In the long-ago, they say, the most powerful charm to keep devils and other evil spirits from entering a house was a fox’s brush hung over the door. Everyone was eager to possess this safeguard; and those who had one fox-brush sought another as a double precaution. The foxes were hunted so ruthlessly that one by one nearly all of them were killed.

The few that remained gathered in a remote cave to discuss their predicament; but there seemed nothing they could do. With all their cunning, their keenness of scent and their fleetness of foot, they were no match for the huntsman’s swift arrow. In their extremity they appealed to the gods who take care of animals; when they left the cave, all through the woods and meadows were tall flowers hung with spotted bells, so that a fox being pursued could ring the bells as he brushed past the stalk and thus give warning to the others. When a hunter heard a foxbell ringing, he was so terrified by the strange, eerie music that he raced back to his hut and shut the door tight, believing that demons were surely abroad. So the forest creatures were left in peace and the people thereafter used herbs for devilcharms. Only when there was no further danger to the foxes did the gods deprive the bells of their music.

excerpt from Stories and Legends of Garden Flowers by Vernon Quinn, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, N. Y., 1939