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.


A Lichen Covered Bench

Sunlight on lichen. Lunch time, we’re sitting in the shade of the orchard, next to us our old metal teapot, red plastic plates, two chipped enamel cups; remnants of camping holidays, and still useable. Over the last couple of months we’ve sat in various parts of the gardens, but the orchard has become the preferred place; watching the play of sunlight on the lichen covering these bench slats. As with herbs, so Lichens are used in medicinal remedies, having antibiotic properties. Maude Grieve specifies two types; Litmus, Rocella Tinctoria, useful in treating coughs and catarrhs, and Liverwort, Peltigera Canina, as a remedy for liver complaints. But these are not the lichens we share this bench with.

We continue to work our way around the Physic garden, thinning out Marshmallow, Hop, Soapwort, Dyers Madder, moving Hypericum which has migrated over time. The garden’s starting to look more organised. We’ve laid a wood chip path next to the wall, for easier access to the plants as they begin to grow and spread again in the coming year. And as expected, the comfrey has emerged again. From past experience on our allotment, while the young shoots are often quite easy to remove, comfrey is deep rooted, and stubborn with it.

The comfrey we’re dealing with is a relatively modern introduction. Lawrence Hills, in Russian Comfrey, (1953), details its history from an agricultural perspective, beginning in the late 18th. century when Joseph Busch, a nurseryman and gardener, left England to become head gardener for Catherine the Great. He sent back several varieties of Symphytum as garden plants, including the largest, Prickly Comfrey, S. Asperrimum, a native of the Caucasus, and recommended as an ornamental perennial, capable of thriving in any soil.

The possibility that these new introductions might be grown as a fodder crop emerged at much the same time, with Hills citing nurseryman James Grant from Lewisham, as the first to discover the agricultural potential of the imported plant. However, because the plant is propagated vegetatively by division, or root cuttings, it was expensive, and the high price demanded by nurserymen meant only small quantities were bought for agricultural trial, which limited research. Interestingly, he points out that this also accounted for, ‘the quite extraordinary number of clergymen in the history of Comfrey. The country parson with his glebe land, his horse, and his Gilbert-White-like interest in Nature and the Useful Arts, was the most frequent buyer.’ Because of the prohibitive costs, eventually both clergy and farmers began to collect Common Comfrey, S. Officinale, from the wild, which increases its yield when cultivated. Hills suggests that this move was largely responsible for ‘the hybrids, with S. Asperrimum as the pollen parent, which are found in many districts more commonly than the true plant [S. Officinale].’

In about 1870, Henry Doubleday imported a hybrid of S. Officinalle and S. Asperrimum, known as S. x Upplandicum from St. Petersburg. The plant was sent to Doubleday by one of the successors to Joseph Busch. Doubleday, and Thomas Christy, a writer, botanist, and nurseryman, between them named this new variety Russian Comfrey, to distinguish it from the earlier introduction, Prickly Comfrey. This naming was against the background of a proliferation of hybrids and a lack of understanding about their use or which hybrids were being grown, evident in the agricultural press at the time. Although there were a number of others carrying out similar research, Henry Doubleday was the first person to select Comfrey by roguing out to improve stock, as well as methodically recording yields.

While Lawrence Hills’ primary interest and research was in the agricultural potential of Comfrey, it’s medicinal value was also recognised. Referencing a recipe in Gerard’s Herball of 1597 that called for the extracted juice of the plant in wine, to aid internal bleeding, Hills points out that, what ‘Master Gerard was prescribing [was] an 0.06 per cent dose of diureide of glyoxylic acid called ‘Allantoin’ to-day. This is present in both the roots and leaves of this plant, and the agricultural species, and its value as a cell-proliferant in making the edges of wounds grow together, healing sores, and internally for gastric and duodenal ulcers and intestinal irritations causing diarrhoea, is still recognised in pharmacy.’

Joseph Payne, in the first of the Fitzpatrick Lectures of 1903 to the Royal College of Physicians, took as his subject Anglo Saxon medicine. Payne drew attention to the fact that the body of knowledge contained in the surviving Anglo Saxon medical texts, was ‘founded on an empirical knowledge of the virtue of herbs, […] the Anglo Saxons took a keen and genuine interest in the study of plants for medicinal uses. […] Their knowledge of botany was not only much more extensive than has been supposed, but it was original.’

During his lectures, Payne made reference to Comfrey’s reputation as a vulnerary herb in Saxon England and, linking the plant across time, he quoted from personal correspondence with a doctor in Sussex, on the continuing use of the plant in diagnosis, ‘The local modus is to scrape the root and put the scrapings (not unlike a dish of horseradish) on the part alleged to be ‘sprained’. If it adhere there is unquestionable evidence of the sprain; if not there is no sprain whatever, the patient may suppose. As a matter of fact the scraped-wort poultice does harden very notably on a hot inflamed area, and sticks for a considerable time.’

Eleanour Rohde suggests that Anglo Saxon medical texts, written in the vernacular, fell into disrepute after the Norman Conquest. The Old English medical texts may have been abandoned for Latin texts, but it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which the vernacular knowledge of pre-conquest England continued to exert an influence on the monastic physic garden, and the collection of herbs in the wild, for medicinal uses.


Physic Garden, Michelham Priory

We’ve recently started to volunteer at Michelham Priory, in Sussex, taking on responsibility to restore the Physic Garden. Bounded by the Refectory and an old stone wall which ends abruptly, a gently curving yew hedge completes the garden’s sense of separation from the rest of the grounds. It’s a quiet place to work, peaceful, but also a long term commitment; over the years the planting has become congested and overgrown.
Although there is no archeological, or other evidence, to indicate the presence of a physic garden on the site, it is highly likely, following the general layout of monasteries and priories, that one would have existsed to provide medicinal herbs for everyday use. The present planting, rather than being a working physic garden, is indicative of herbs, both medicinal, and household, in common use during the period when Michelham functioned as a priory.

Working from a copy of the original planting plan, when the garden was established in 1981, we’re finding out what has migrated, or disappeared, as the more vigorous and unruly plants have come to dominate this enclosed space. While we’re familiar with a number of the herbs, this is also a learning process and exciting for that; understanding the conditions that each herb thrives in, as well as beginning to research their medicinal uses; but that’s for later, as, for now, we have some very practical problems to address.

The herbs have been grouped according to their uses: childbirth and children’s diseases; rheumatism, gout and painful joints; household tasks; the heart, lungs and blood disorders. Solomon’s Seal, Herb Robert, and Comfrey, among others, were used to treat wounds and broken bones, but a dense patch of Comfrey now dominates this area and the other plants struggle to compete. It is Symphytum x uplandicum, Russian Comfrey, probably Boking 14, a cultivar developed by Lawrence Hills in the 1950s, not the native species, Common Comfrey Symphytum Officinale, that would have been familiar in a monastic physic garden. Some of its common names: knitbone, knitback, bruise wort, boneset, tell of the medicinal value attributed to this herb.

In A Modern Herbal, Maude Grieves states:
‘Country people cultivated Comfrey in their gardens for its virtue in wound healing, and the many local names of the plant testify to its long reputation as a vulnerary herb – in the Middle Ages it was a famous remedy for broken bones. The very name, Comfrey, is a corruption of con firma, in allusion to the uniting of bones it was thought to effect, and the botanical name Symphytum, is derived from the Greek, symphyo (to unite).’

Given the difficulty in eradicating the Comfrey already in the garden, we now have the opportunity to re-introduce Symphytum officinale alongside Symphytum x uplandicum. Comfrey flowers early, and is one the first food plants for bumble bees, so let’s see what the next few seasons bring as Common Comfrey grows alongside Russian Comfrey and the bees happily forage between them.

For now, the comfrey patch has been cleared as much as possible, and mulched with compost; we’ve also made a comfrey feed by filling an old dustbin with leaves, ramming them down and filling the bin with water. It’s been a few weeks since that was started so we’ll decant the liquid and mulch the brassicas in the kitchen garden with the remaining comfrey sludge. However, even with the most careful of weeding, Comfrey roots are deep and so there’ll be roots left in the ground and no doubt, over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to see shoots appearing in the area we’ve cleared. For now, a sense of order is beginning to emerge.


Physic garden [1]



A Fox Wanders By

We often see lone foxes drifting across this landscape, following familiar trails; ours is a large site situated in a valley, bounded by a wood on its western side. At the head of the valley there is a golf course and beyond that fields, stretching off towards Ditchling Beacon. And we’re happy for fox to take on the role of pest control. One of our neighbours further down the valley told us about a fox family living under an old shed on the plot bordering theirs. They didn’t have any problems with rats in their compost bins. Fox is welcome.

Yesterday was different; three foxes. The first, a dog fox, disturbed while collecting wood chip to cover paths; the second, a vixen, encountered while filling the kettle for tea; and the third, another vixen, sitting by the gate at the top of our plot. We’d walked up to the back of the plot to get bags of seaweed for the potato beds. Fox was sitting by the gate, watching; only when we got too close did she turn away along the top path.

Fox wanders through our lives, elusive, disruptive, its classification problematic. Although its behaviour patterns and anatomical features identify fox as a member of the family Canidae, it also shares several features with cats, creating difficulties for the naturalist, the red fox’s long, very thin canine teeth and its ventrally slit pupils with their well developed tapetum lucidum are extremely obvious cat-like features. […] One other cat-like behavior, though, that is not so easily explained is the lateral threat display used by foxes in aggressive displays (stand sideways, back arched, fur erect etc). This very classic “cat pose” seems out of place in the behavioral display of a canine. David J. Henry suggests that fox’s fluid nature can be accounted for in evolutionary terms.

This ambiguity, that vexes scientific certainty, is also central to the fictional fox. The European tradition begins in antiquity via writings of natural history by the Elder Pliny, Aristotle, and Claudius Aelianus, and through writers of comedies such as Aristophanes, or historians like Herodotus (Uther, 2006: 134). For Martin Wallen, the problem begins with Aristotle:
For a systematic observer like Aristotle, an animal that conceals itself from plain view is wicked, since it represents the limit beyond which empirical observation cannot reach. […] The identification of the fox as wicked and belonging to some primordial chthonic order reverberates throughout descriptions and stories of all centuries and cultures (Wallen, 2006: 11-12).

A creature of the earth, fox is associated with primordial chthonic forces. Aesop’s fables developed and focused these powers into fox’s defining characteristics: intelligence and cunning, it’s ability to work outside the norms of society. Early Christian and Medieval thought condemned fox’s fluid nature, associating it with the Devil; an association transmitted in part, through Bestiaries, allegorical texts that articulated a world view with God at its centre. These often lavishly illustrated books, attributing moral and symbolic qualities to animals, exerted a profound influence on Medieval art and literature. The Physiologus stands at the beginning of this tradition. As Hans-Jorg Uther points out: The equation fox = heretic, as it is transmitted through the Physiologus (a work of the fourth century CE), for example, has had a particularly long term effect.

But, then there is Reynard, who, for almost 800 years […] provided a distinct mythos for literature, drama and ecclesiastical allegory depending on whether the poet, scribe or woodcarver saw the fox as entertainer or as allegory of Satan (Wollen, 2006: 52). Reynard’s subtle nature has proved extremely durable, but the negative associations persist, the crude equation still has currency, the heretic still a disruptive anti social element, a creature to be hunted.
The relationship is curious; wild creature, adversary, vermin, a pest to be controlled, not exterminated. Intimately enmeshed in the rural economy, fox is managed & bred to maintain its presence for the hunt. Viewed through this lens, it’s not too difficult to imagine the significance of the ritual role attributed to fox hunting, by the ‘custodians of the countryside’, in symbolically maintaining the social hierarchy of the rural environment. And when the hunting lobby points out that hounds, not humans, kill foxes, they deny the obvious, humans train fox hounds to pursue and kill foxes.

So, fox remains an outsider, populating our imagination as much as the environment we often share with it. It therefore seems fitting that fox should be a welcome transient, drifting across an allotment landscape characterised as marginal, under the constant threat of development.

Pleaching or Plashing a Hedge

Walking in a thick pleached alley in mine orchard
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1 scene 2

I’ve started belated work on pruning the hedges around our allotment; the boundary has been planted out, over time, with a mix of Hazel, Beech, Hornbeam, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. During the last 4 years I’ve collected hedging seeds while out walking in autumn, stratifying them over winter, then planting in seed beds before lining the seedlings out to grow on. This way I’ve grown seedlings of Field Maple (Acer campestre), Spindle Bush (Euonymus europaeus) and Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), alongside Dog Rose (Rosa canina), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) and a range of crab apples, all of which are beginning to find their way into sections as I prune and identify gaps during the bare winter months. The oldest of the sections is 10 years old and looks quite substantial, if a bit haphazard, while the lower hedge is dominated by Hornbeam due to damp ground at the bottom of our plot, a reminder of the stream flowing beneath the haulage way.

I began experimenting with pleaching when the hedges needed some serious pruning, yet their growth had not created a sufficiently dense barrier. Pleaching or plashing [ Middle English plechen from Norman French plechier, Old French plessier, French plessier, plaissier, to weave] is to interweave, twist or plait growing branches of hedging and tree species, along with dead branches, to create a stock proof barrier and field boundary marker. As a hedge-making technique, pleaching was common from the medieval period; however, hedges are considered to have existed across most of Britain during the Anglo Saxon period, with the oldest living hedge, Judith’s Hedge in Cambridgeshire, which marks both a parish and a Hundred boundary, thought to date from a period of field creation in the 11th century. Given the evidence for Anglo-Saxon hedges, and the need for stock proof barriers and boundary markers as agricultural enclosure proceeded, pleaching as a hedge-making technique is likely to have been an evolving practice.

As an horticultural technique it is more usually associated with formal gardens, with our contemporary perceptions of its use shaped by Le Notre’s use of pleached lime and hormbeam as living architecture in his designs for Versailles. It is important to recall that Le Notre, from a family of gardeners, grew up in a house within the Tuileries gardens, where he would have acquired practical horticultural knowledge. The historical appropriation and re-making of a technique has resulted in its original informal and agricultural use becoming submerged beneath later cultural forms.

Informal pleaching doesn’t require the supports needed to create the geometric lines of more formal hedges, as the aim is to create a densely intertwined ‘fence’ that supports itself and acts as a barrier. All outward branches or breast wood are either pruned out if too woody to bend and twist successfully, or woven together with neighbouring branches to fill a gap. I’ve learnt to be ruthless in pruning overcrowded sections; the pruning process stimulates dormant buds to break so I now prune new sections quite hard to produce strong branches to weave in next year. The Hazel is particularly productive and yields an ample supply of pea supports each spring. Where the hedge is more established and has reached the height we need, I’ve cut out the leaders to encourage bottom and side growth. We end up with a series of arches, one hedging plant curving into the next, as the hedge gently undulates up the hillside.


While researching the origins of pleaching I discovered another method associated with it, for producing hedges from cuttings. A Quickset Hedge is created by planting live Hazel and Hawthorn cuttings directly into the ground to root, thus establishing a dense boundary inexpensively and rapidly. The term, 1st recorded in 1484, doesn’t imply quickness as in fast, but quick as in live cuttings, from the earlier meaning of quick as alive [the quick and the dead]. This method can be used successfully with a range of shrubs and trees that root freely. When I prune the boundary hedge in late winter, I always take hardwood cuttings to root them for future use; this year I’m trying out the Quickset method on sections that need more substantial planting, using Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Hazel. As Hornbeam and Beech grow more slowly and will be in danger of becoming overwhelmed before they establish properly, I will take hardwood cuttings and line them out in my cuttings bed to grow on before using them in the hedge.

So, our plot boundary hedge represents my experiments with propagating hedge species alongside developing informal pleaching techniques, interspersed with a bit of quickset hedge creation; a process that quite probably mirrors the ways hedge making has evolved over time.


It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

Roedale Valley

This is the first in a series of four short films we are making across the seasons on Roedale Valley, our allotment site, on the edge of Brighton, UK.
Its spring and Gladys and Georgina reflect on the changes that have happened since they first took on tenancies over 30 years ago.