The Dartmoor Cowflop sounds as if it’s something whose location people bet on at a cow crapping contest, but no, nothing as repulsive. It is the old moor name for that magical plant that the piskies love so much – the foxglove. Don’t ask why it is called a cowflop as I have no idea, that answer has been lost in the mists of time. It is a very hardy plant and can be seen far and wide, from the high moors to the lower moorland lanes. I could never understand why the primrose became the ‘flower of Devon’ because the foxglove should have been chosen. Why? because you will never see a primrose on the high moor, they stick to the lower land whereas the foxglove appears almost anywhere in Devon. For centuries the plant has been associated with folklore and healing although in this capacity it tends to get a bad name, deservedly so I may add, if not treated with respect.
At grid reference SX 614 814 are some old tinners workings in a small gully known as ‘Cowflop Bottom’ of which Hemery notes the following, “The northern sector of the head basin (Broada Marsh Stream) is adorned by cowflops (foxgloves) and is consequently known as ‘Cowflop Bottom'”. I have never actually seen any cowflops there but that means nothing, clearly at one time they flourished with abundance.
Other Dartmoor names for the foxglove are: Long Purples, Pixie Gloves, Pop-dock, and Purples. It is thought that the name foxglove came from a corruption of ‘folk’s glove’ which refers to the little folk or piskies, hence also ‘Pixie Gloves’. Another tradition suggests that foxglove refers to the piskies tying the flowers over the foxes paws in order that they could tread silently when raiding the chicken coops. I have once heard the story that if ever you hear the flowers or ‘bells’ ringing then it is an omen of your impending death.
Since 1785 the foxglove has be famous for its extracted digitalis which in this year William Witheridge isolated the drug and used it for treating heart disease. An old local remedy for the treatment of skin sores was the application of foxgloves that had been picked from the north side of a wall. To dream of foxgloves was always a sign of happiness and prosperity but to bring them into the house was to invite certain bad luck. But on the other hand it was thought if they were grown in the garden, foxgloves would avert any evil that may be lurking about. This is why in many of the established gardens of the old cotts you will often see foxgloves growing. If ever you saw the stalk of a foxglove suddenly bend over it was a sure sign that some supernatural being was close by. My old gran always used to say that witches would rub an ointment made from foxgloves into their thighs in order to be able to fly along the hedgerows – ugh, what a thought, it would be like rubbing Ralgex into a map of the London underground!
But obviously the plant is very poisonous and should never be used in anyway, shape, or form. It wouldn’t happen today but as the years progress there are always childhood memories of good whackings. Amongst the many (deserved) I received there are two that clearly stand out, the first one was with a sergeant’s ‘swagger stick’ for deliberately dropping my sister on her head and the second was a good ‘leathering’ for coming home with foxglove flowers on each of my fingers. I thought they looked quite fetching but obviously mother was concerned that I should be struck down with severe cowflop poisoning, or maybe she though boys shouldn’t do such girlie things – quite right too!