From early summer the countryside is punctuated by one of our most flamboyant and easily recognised wild flowers, the foxglove. Their tall purple spires catch the eye against a background of greenery. The velvety tumbling bells take many of us back to childhood. Thought to be indigenous, this lovely wayfarer grows widely throughout Europe and the forests of North America.
Though growing in profusion amid hedgerows, heaths and hillsides, foxgloves are often found far within woods. Scattered along footpaths and rides, they seem to entice the rambler deeper beneath the dappled shade and indicate the way like fingerposts.
Even before the stems shoot skywards, the foxglove’s cabbage-like leaves are an attractive sight. They are the source of digitalis, the drug well known to combat heart disease. Though it helps many people today, few know they owe their thanks to the tenacity of William Withering, an 18th century Shropshire doctor.
Born in 1741, Withering was the son of a surgeon and started out as his father’s apprentice before studying at Edinburgh University. He was known to be interested in the properties of plants and published two volumes on A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain.
Dr Withering had a patient expected to die of a failing heart. There was no treatment. However, the patient sought a herbal remedy from a Gypsy woman and recovered. Withering found the old woman in Shropshire and learned the concoction of herbs she used, which included foxglove.
At the time foxglove was a traditional cure for dropsy, which was often a symptom of heart failure. Knowing the extract was potentially poisonous, Dr Withering spent the next decade experimenting to find a safe dosage, sometimes trying infusions on himself and fellow physicians.
In 1785 he published An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medicinal Uses. This became a classic reference work and an extract of the powdered leaf was introduced into medicinal use. When Withering lay dying in 1799 a friend supposedly commented: The flower of English physicians is indeed Withering.
Tradition has it that Withering wrote the following lines:
The Foxglove’s leaves, with caution given,
Another proof of favouring Heav’n
Will rapidly display;
The rapid pulse it can abate,
The hectic flush can moderate,
And blest be Him whose will is fate,
May give a lengthened day.
A century before Withering, foxgloves were recommended by herbalists for a variety of ailments, especially skin complaints. The leaves were bruised to make ointment or applied directly to wounds as a poultice. Nicholas Culpepper wrote in 1653:
It is of a gentle cleansing nature… I am confident that an ointment of it is one of the best remedies for a scabby head that there is.
The foxglove family name Scrophulariaceae refers to its use in treating scrofula or the King’s Evil.
Foxglove was said to be effective for both green and old wounds. In Ireland it was traditionally used to heal skin complaints such as ulcers, bruises and boils. John Gerard even advocated it as a cure for “those who have fallen from high places as well as for cleansing the body of clammy and naughty humours.”
The name foxglove is thought to be a corruption of ‘folksglove’ meaning glove of the fairy folk, possibly as fairies were believed to dwell hidden in woods and hollows. Its Latin name Digitalis purpureais ‘purple finger’. Only in Scandinavia is there a link with the fox. Their legend tells that mischievous fairies gave him the flowers to muffle his paws as he prowled village henhouses.
Irish legend has it that the distinctive markings on the corolla are where the elves touched them to leave warnings that the plant was poisonous. These tales are reflected in its other colourful names such as glovewort, fairy’s thimble, dead man’s bell and bloody finger.
According to country lore, foxgloves stimulate the growth of neighbouring plants. Apples, tomatoes and potatoes are said to keep longer if they are grown nearby. Worth a try maybe, for this beautiful plant has already proved to be of remarkable use.
Text and pictures (c) A and J Bainbridge