Foxglove

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.

 

Spring Cleaning

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Synonyms: Goosegrass. Barweed. Hedgeheriff. Hayriffe. Eriffe. Grip Grass. Hayruff. Catchweed. Scratweed. Mutton Chops. Robin-run-in-the-Grass. Loveman. Goosebill. Everlasting Friendship.
(A Modern Herbal. Maude Grieve)

An insistent rattle echoes across the green, between the moat and the physic garden; a woodpecker, battering the bark of an old oak bordering the moat.
The garden is growing again after the winter months; Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is emerging, and needs thinning, to stop it dominating ground shared with Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum); Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is growing vigorously; Elecampane (Inula helenium) shoots disturb the soil; and Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is already colonising part of the wood chip path laid around the perimeter of the garden.

We’ve been transplanting herbs, and weeding; Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), and Cleavers (Galium aparine), considered invasive weeds, as are most of the plants in this garden. Small, bounded by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, limited space encourages the need to be selective, to exclude the more vigorous plants, including Cleavers, because of its extremely unruly habit. It can be a troublesome plant, clinging to clothing, but playful too. It’s very familiarity prompted Edward Step to include aparine in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), and for another reason: The rambling botanist, when playfully inclined, detaches a yard-length from the hedge, and deftly throwing it against his unconscious companions back, causes a hundred hooks to catch in the warp or weft of his coat.

Following Cleavers’ spreading habit is fascinating; it’s specific name aparine, is derived from the Greek aparo, to seize, a characteristic Theophrastus observed in the 2nd century BCE. Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides, both writing in the 1st century CE mention this characteristic, as well as its medicinal value; Pliny specifies the seedto neutralize the venom of serpents, being taken in doses of one drachma, in wine: it is useful also for the bite of the phalangium; Dioscorides recommends the whole plantseed, stalks and leaves […] juiced (taken as a drink with wine) to help those bitten by harvest spiders and snakes; both recommend drops of the juice to cure earache. Dioscorides also prescribes the pounded herb, mixed with swines’ grease, as a remedy for scrofulous tumors. Pliny mentions: The leaves, applied topically, arrest haemorrhage from wounds. Contemporaries, but with no evidence to suggest they met or corresponded, it seems possible that, in their separate commentaries, they were drawing on common knowledge, as well as observation.

Continuity and change; knowledge travels, manuscripts are annotated, translated, commentaries written. The printed English Herbals, from the 16th century onwards, rely heavily on these classical authors, while registering changes and developments too, in a broader European context. Eleanor Rohde suggests that English herbalists owed a great deal to Europe, particularly the herbalists of the Netherlands, Rembert Dodeons amongst them; but knowledge is shared. William Turner, in The Names of Herbes (1548), includes Cleavers ability to, scoureth away and dryeth, perhaps a reference to what had become its general use in treating skin diseases. Something Rembert Dodeons acknowledges, in A Newe Herball, or, Historie of plants, translated from the French by Henrie Lyte (1586), when, in the entry for Cleavers, he quotes William Turner (1551): pound with hogges grease, it dissolveth and consumeth the disease of the knecke, called the Kinges evil, and all hard kernels and wennes wheresoever they be, if it be layed thereto, as Turner writes.
Gerard, in his Herball (1636), simply quotes from the classical authors, adding to the herbs vertues what may be a folk remedy: Women do usually make pottage of Clevers with a little mutton and Otemeal, to cause lanknesse and keep them from fatnesse.
William Coles, writing in the 17th century repeats the standard medicinal uses of Cleavers, adding; A handful of Cleavers boiled in a quart of Ale, with a little paired liquorice, and some currants to the one halfe, and then strained, may be successfully drunk morning and evening for the cough, and removing phlegm from the stomack. He also writes of its common use as a ‘spring drink’, fitting the body for the season that followes, by purging away those excrementitious dregs, which winter hath bred in them.
Benjamin Barton and Thomas Castle, writing in the 19th century, refer to its use, among country people for scorbutic complaints. In the preface to The British Flora Medica (1845), they state their intention: to furnish an accurate description of all the medicinal plants indigenous to Britain [and] the estimation in which they were held by the greatest and most skilful of the old physicians. For this they claim a degree of originality, as far as the term will apply to publications whose chief value consists […] in affording a record of the experience of the past (their emphasis).
Older knowledge informing current use; with Cleavers it was its value as an external application in the treatment of cancer; the herb’s cleansing capabilities, already noted by William Turner, to scoureth away and dryeth, accompanied by internal treatment, either the juice, or a decoction of the herb for which they provide a recipe.

Aparine has a place in current herbal practice, it’s healing properties still very much valued; but it will remain outside this herb garden, or at least that’s the idea. Look again, that patch of ground we’ve weeded, leave it a few days and no doubt the Goosegrass will emerge, and left to its own devices, will be weaving its way across the beds, covering, enveloping, clinging; an invitation to play.

 

 

 

 

Work an Eye Salve for a Wen

So the passing days find us here again working in the physic garden, cutting back and clearing, gathering herbs together, making progress. Hypericum, seeded in different parts of the garden; Common Mallow, migrated from the original planting place, and now grouped together in the preferred spot; Solomon’s Seal, congested and in need of thinning out; Herb Robert and Chickweed, considered common weeds, have a place in this garden. As does Elecampane, of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny, according to Grieve, and Agrimony, known to the Anglo-Saxons as a vulnerary; all point to an older, more intense awareness of the immediate environment.

The ground we’ve been working today has become compacted over time, turning it over throws up Alexanders and Chicory roots; as with the other herbs, we’re learning to recognise different roots, to name them. There’s a toad population we have to watch out for too; one was nestling in the comfrey we had ‘cleared’. Moving it to the yew hedge wasn’t too much of a problem. And the comfrey patch has been dug over, again.

People wander through the garden, occasionally stop, chat, then leave to visit another part of the Priory, but most of the time we’re left alone. Today people want to talk, which is fine; nothing quite like nattering, in between gardening. We talk about the older medical knowledge these plants represent, how some of these practices are still with us, in the herbal mixtures, tonics, balms, bought from the chemist, or off the web, alongside the antibiotics we consume all too readily. Conversations circle around the same question, posed in different ways; where did this knowledge come from? One man thinks, ‘Maybe they knew something we’ve lost,’ while we talk about treating nettle stings with Dock leaves; shared knowledge, strands of a folk medicine that’s still alive.

Suggestive rather than productive, this garden speaks of a time when people were careful husbandmen [who] out of sheer necessity […] made the greatest possible use of the resources they had available to them; it follows that they had an intense familiarity with the plant and animal life around them. What Stephen Pollington is describing, in the context of medicinal knowledge in Anglo Saxon England, seems nothing but the echo of a memory now, filtered through images of the pastoral idyll; imagined geographies tapping into ever-present anxieties about the pace of change to the environment we inhabit.

This garden owes much to Gerard’s Herball. Although John Gerard was accused of plagiarism when he first published the Herball in 1597, sixty years after the dissolution of Michelham Priory, the book nevertheless proved extremely popular, and has endured. Eleanour Rohde, writing in the 1920s, acknowledges and forgives those criticisms, setting aside, Gerard’s possible duplicity in the never failing charm of the book, noting that it contains Gerard’s own observations as well as a good deal of contemporary folklore. For Rohde, that mixture of medicine and magic which informed Anglo Saxon medical practice, the belief in the efficacy of herbs used as amulets, survives in the Herball, although Gerard does sometimes doubt the efficacy of what he terms, Physick charms, relying instead on his religious faith to cure him of, a most grievous ague […] for these medicines and all other such things did me no good at all.

If Gerard is present in this garden, so are the vernacular traditions embodied in the folklore he drew on, echoes of those older practices to which Rohde and Pollington refer. And while it’s true that magic was a component part of all ancient and medieval medical practices, M. L. Cameron questions the extent to which it played the dominant role in Anglo Saxon medicine, suggesting that sound observation and experience also underpinned that practice. He analyses a remedy, taken from Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript possibly compiled towards the end of the 9th century, intended to treat the microbial infection that cause styes: Staphylococcus aureus.

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, both of equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand for nine days in the brass vessel, wring through with a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye: the best leechdom.[1]

Cameron states that the remedy, contains four antibiotic agents, two of them (onion and garlic) especially active against staphylococci, bull’s gall destructive of bacteria generally and the fourth (copper salts) toxic to all cells. […] Applied to a stye, this medicine should have helped to destroy bacteria at the site of the infection and to have prevented the spread of infection to other sites. Nine days allowed the copper salts to form.

In 2015 Freya Harrison conducted an experiment that excited attention in the international press. Harrison, together with Christina Lee, a medieval scholar, and colleagues in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, at the University of Nottingham, and at the Texas Tech University, USA, reproduced the stye remedy. Substituting cow’s bile for bull’s gall, and glass bottles containing squares of brass sheet instead of the brass vessel specified, after nine days the solution was tested on fragments of skin infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The remedy successfully killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used against MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin fragments. Harrison, speaking at the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference in 2015, stated, ‘Our results highlight the untapped potential of pre-modern antibacterial remedies for yielding novel therapeutics.’
This isn’t isolated research, increased antibiotic resistance is an international problem, encouraging researchers to look at the potential of older traditional medicinal practices, and not just in relation to antibiotic resistance. Yung-Chi Cheng, professor of pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine is developing a new cancer treatment based on an ancient Chinese recipe.

The weather changes, clouds gather, we continue working, quietly now that people have wandered off to different parts of the Priory. We collect together Motherwort, Sweet Cicely, thin out Lemon Balm, clear a space for chickweed; someone walking through the garden comments, ‘Its like cultivating weeds, isn’t it?’ Pauses, ‘I like flowers.’ And then she’s gone before we can respond. These plants persist, they grow and spread, become a nuisance to the gardener, are consigned to the compost heap. They colonise roadside verges, field boundaries, are sprayed in an attempt to eradicate what is seen as untidy, a menace. Rampant, unruly, they disrupt the boundaries we draw between nature and culture; weeds, mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us.

Considered disruptive, in this herb garden, Chickweed, Dandelion and Daisy, Herb Robert, cultivated alongside Hypericum, Mallow, Sage and Thyme, suggest another way to engage with the ordinary and the everyday.

[1] Cockayne, O. Leechdom, Wortcunning, and Star Craft of Early England. Vol.II. p35. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. London 1865. In a footnote Cockayne suggests uncertainly that Allium oleraceum might be the cropleek known to Saxon leechs. He points out that wisps or styes are called wuns in Devon.

Marigold