Foxglove: the thimble of death

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I was always warned as a child about the dangers of foxglove. Mum and dad told me not to touch the flowers, and definitely never to pick the plant, no matter how bonny. Despite the warnings, the temptation was always strong – the colour, shape and size, the sheer number of them out through the summer. Speaking to a friend recently, it was funny to hear her tales of an almost pathological desire to stick her fingers in the flower heads as a kid, despite similar repeated warnings from her parents. I’ve still never picked a foxglove stem, or touched one of the flowers, though I do still think they are one of the bonniest plants growing just now.

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I like the English name foxglove in itself, but Gaelic has some great names too. In fact, there are a few different names for this plant depending who you ask (and where they’re from), and they’re all interesting.

Foxglove,  digitalis purpurea

Cìoch nam cailleachean marbha
kee-och nam call-yech-an marv-uh
The dead women’s breast


Lus nam ban sìth
looss nam bahn shee
The fairy’s flower. Fairies were not always benevolent visitors in Gaelic tradition.


Meuran a’ bhàis

mee-uh-run a vaa-ish
The thimble of death. Meuran means thimble here but otherwise usually means a branch.

Commonly used words in Gaelic that might you might see elsewhere: cailleach (old woman; uncomplimentary); lus (plant or flower); marbh (dead).

These names say something of the mythology and folklore attached to foxglove; the dangers or potential medicinal use of the plant would have been well known. It’s not for no reason that a plant name would be so connected to death. What better way to warn children of the potential danger than to call it Cìoch nam cailleachean marbha?

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All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons except the lead image which is © Copyright Linda and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Brisgean – Silverweed

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Suddenly it’s June and we’re running headfirst into Summer. The open moorland has tipped over into green after shades of brown dominated Winter. Verges and lochans are ready to burst into a song of yellow with the first flag iris in bloom. Elsewhere, silverweed lies low on the roadsides, shimmering in whatever sun it catches. It’s an unassuming plant but I’m fond of it and it has a revealing history.

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In Gaelic, many things have more than one name and silverweed is no exception. It’s common name in brisgean (breesh-kun) but it’s ’poetic’ name is An Seachdamh Aran, literally meaning ‘the 7th bread’. It has been, in the recent past, relied on in times of famine to provide much needed sustenance. The root can be ground into a kind of flour from which bread can be made.

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In the days before tatties, it was reputedly used extensively as a foodstuff, not just as a last resort. I’m not going to be digging up the verges to try it anytime soon but I’d be interested to hear if anyone has tried some.

More here by Ruaraidh MacLean for SNH.

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