Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fox gloves and cuckoo pints

The fox has been fairly faithful walking by my window in the morning, occasionally across the sill (long and low), sometimes along the wall at the edge of the garden past -- foxglove!

How did foxglove get its name? I turn to Richard Mabey's wonderful compendium, Flora Britannica, in which is gathered the country lore of almost every plant in these British/Irish Isles.

"The tapered, tubular flowers of foxglove obviously suggest the gloves of some small creature," says Mabey. "But why, given their rosy-pink coloring, should it be a fox?" Perhaps because it grows in foxy places, he guesses, places of bracken and heather like our garden. Children use the flowers as finger puppets and fake claws. The temptation seems irresistible to slip them glovelike onto finger tips.

While I'm with Mabey's book, I browse other plants. The local names of many plants, I note, have a sexual connotation, presumably recalling a time when the mechanics of reproduction were a prominent part of the country person's world. Wild arum, for example, with its pale green sheath hooding the purple or yellow spadix, is alternately called cuckoo-pint (short for pintle, or penis), priest's pilly, and the delightfully ribald willy lily.

According to an old legend, the medieval monks of Ely, in the English fenlands, stole the body of St. Withburga from a rival monastery and carried it back to Ely by boat down the river Little Ouse. As they paused to rest along the way, the nuns of Thetford came down to the riverside and covered the saint's body with blossoms of cuckoo-pint. As the boat continued its journey, flowers fell into the river and immediately took root. Within an hour they had covered the river banks as far as Ely with blossoms -- which glowed radiantly at night.

Apparently, the pollen of the cuckoo-pint does glow faintly at dusk. When Irish workers came to the neighborhood of Ely in the 19th century to drain the fens during the famine in their own country, they called the plants along the river fairy lamps. The fen folk themselves had long called them shiners.

This rich plant lore is fading fast, ignored by a generation who live their lives gazing into the face of a television or computer monitor, which is why Mabey so urgently set about collecting his materials. When the current cohort of aging Brits and Irish die off, one wonders if anyone will remember St. Withburga's miraculous procession lit by fairy lamps -- or the willy lily.