Digitalis is called in english foxgloue. It groweth in hedge sydes, in woddes and wylde places.
The Names of Herbes, William Turner 1548
A solitary white foxglove lingers, the last flowers open and beginning to wither, a bee disappears into one of the remaining trumpets. On the bank beneath the old Apple tree, foxgloves have flowered and seed heads ripened on dry stalks. Bees are busy in the Hollyhock and Borage growing across our allotment. But we don’t have foxglove growing in the physic garden at Michelham, which is curious.
Maude Greave thinks foxglove, perhaps the handsomest of our indigenous plants, […] yet no animals will browse upon the plant, perhaps instinctively recognising its poisonous character. A stately plant, but dangerous, long associated with fairies, goblins and witches, with the fox, from whom it takes its name; in Old English, foxes glôfa, the glove of the fox. But the naming poses problems; R. C. A. Prior in On the Popular Names of British Plants (1870) found a questionable link in Anglo Saxon music; Fox Talbot, in English Etymologies (1847) looked for its meaning in the Welsh maneg ellyllon, or the fairies glove; Richard Folkard, in Plant lore, legends, and lyrics (1884) quotes Prior approvingly, while questioning what he refers to as the fanciful interpretation of its origin in the Fairy Folks’ Glove. Many of the 19th century folklore and etymological texts appear to draw on similar sources, with slight variations, although none provide convincing evidence as to ‘why fox?’ In an article exploring linguistic attempts to locate the origin of the name, Anatoly Liberman concludes that, foxglove is foxglove and we better just live with it. The association remains allusive, Martin Wallen pointing out that even, in the dry nomenclature of science, we find a foxy wit tunneling through the narrative of this flowers history; Leonard Fuchs (1501-1566), whose name in German means fox, is the botanist who first gave the flower its scientific name digitalis, Latin for of the finger.
Both alluring and dangerous, foxglove’s etymological origins may be vexing, but its medicinal virtues have been known, if not entirely understood, for centuries. It is referred to in the Old English medical manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries as an external remedy for inflammatory sores; skin problems; headache; and earache, and in the 13th century the Physicians of Myddvai similarly employed it: For a Violent Headache. Take the leaves of foxglove, and pound with milk and mutton suit, till it becomes a plaster, apply to head as warm as it can be borne; common external uses spanning centuries.
By the early part of the 16th century foxglove was being recommended as an internal remedy; questionable uses that, as Maude Grieve pointed out, practitioners of the present day would consider [..] highly dangerous. Rembert Dodeons, in his Cruydeboeck (Herb Book), translated into English by Henry Lyte as, A new herbal, or, Historie of plants (1586), recommended:
foxe gloue boiled in water or wine, and drunken, doth cut and consume the thicke toughnesse of grosse and slimie humours. Also it openeth the stoppings of the liver, and splene, or milt, and of other inward poarts. The same taken in the like manner, or else boiled with honied water, doth scoure and cleanse the breath, and ripen and bringeth forth tough and clammy fleume.
John Gerard, in his Herball, first published in 1597, offers very similar advice. Generally the herbals of the period offer little in the way of precise dosage, or even which parts of the plant might be used in the treatment of various conditions.
Both note the cultivation of the plant, Dodeons stating that it is, also planted in certaine gardens, Gerard referring to several varieties growing in his garden, including the lesser duskie Fox gloue [which he first observed] in the year 1632 in floure with Mr. John Tradescant in the middle of July. It may […] be called Digitalis ferruginea minor, small duskie Fox-gloues. Although foxglove was thought by these herbalists to be beneficial it was, without reference to those valuable properties which render it useful as a remedy.
William Withering’s work, published in An account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses (1785) changed that. The culmination of 10 years research, Wiithering, in the introduction states that: The use of foxglove is getting abroad and it is better the world should derive some instruction, however imperfectly, from my experience, than the lives of men should be hazarded by its unguarded exhibition […]. Acknowledging the severe limitations of chemistry during this period, he embarked on clinical trials, based on the assumption that any medicinal value must be sought, from the empirical usages and experience of the populace. Significantly, Withering was alert to foxglove’s reputation in folk medicine: In the year 1775, my opinion was asked concerning a family receipt for the cure of dropsy. I was told that it had long been kept a secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed. Other reports suggested to him that foxglove’s use as a folk remedy was more general than he was aware of, leaving him to speculate on why, no author seems to have been aquainted with its effects as a diuretic. The detailed case histories, treating dropsy, and heart conditions, offer fascinating reading, not only for the general health of his 18th century patients, but for his own, very honest approach to the use of such a potentially dangerous medication; I have […] mentioned every case in which I have prescribed the Foxglove, proper or improper, successful or otherwise. Although ethically dubious, it was pioneering work that eventually led to the inclusion of the foxglove in orthodox medicine, in the treatment of heart conditions. And Foxglove still maintains an important place in herbal medicine too, as a treatment for heart complaints.
Our white foxglove still lingers, its last three trumpets stately, if a little withered. And its inclusion in the physic garden? We’re looking into that.