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.
Herbs grow, colonise, move around the garden, always pushing beyond the artificial boundaries we attempt to impose. Common Mallow (Malva silvestris) threatens to engulf Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Iris (Iris florentina), Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) overruns the House Leek (Sempervivum tectorum); there’s a balance to be struck between natural growth and the organised nature of the physic garden. We’re attempting to restore that balance, clearing Calendula from the House Leek, thinning out the Common Mallow, and weeding out the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) which has emerged again among the Bisort (Polygonum bisorta).
Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert, grow in the gaps between paving, disrupting the divisions between pathway and bed, and there’s something in this unruly habit that’s to be welcomed; leave them, let them grow, within reason, acknowledging the tension between artifice and unconfined growth.
The Physic garden’s function is primarily aesthetic and informative, which sometimes poses problems. Many of the plants are regarded as weeds; numerous conversations with people visiting the garden bear this out, as well as the surprise and delight that weeds such as Herb Robert in flower can look so extraordinary, a mass of feathery red foliage studded with geranium pink flowers. Common Mallow is associated with the peripheral zones of the urban environment. Edward Step, in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), believed that one of its common names, Rags and Tatters […] could only have been suggested by one of the unfortunate specimens that have chanced to grow between the roadside and the ditch […] liberally coated by road dust they do present a forlorn and ragged appearance. Among the common names listed by Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora (1955) are, Chucky Cheese, Old Man’s Bread and Cheese, referring to the seeds, which develop after flowering. Children still eat these discs or ‘cheeses’, as they are known from Cornwall to the Border. Valued medicinally, the foliage can also be eaten as a vegetable; ragged on the roadside, but also a useful plant.
Working in this garden, weeding, tidying, replanting where necessary, we are aware of what little connection there is to a time when these plants, considered unruly and invasive by some of our visitors, were food and medicine. Teresa McClean suggests that, so many medieval plants were so variously used that almost all of them were classified as herbs, including those grown in the specialised area of the monastic infirmary garden.
John Gerard’s Herball, first published 60 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, informs the original planting in the physic garden; the decision resting on the understanding that many of the plant remedies listed in the Herball were already considered traditional, having the authority of the classical Greek and Roman texts that the friars may have been familiar with. But Gerard wasn’t concerned with the monastic garden. A 9th century poem in Latin, by Walafrid Strabo, On The Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus), offers an insight into that intense familiarity, born out of necessity that McClean alludes to. Walafrid was Abbot of the Abbey on the island of Reichenau in the Bodensee, southwest Germany, when he wrote the poem, some four centuries before the founding of Michelham Priory.
On the Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus) is anchored in the physical processes of gardening, an activity central to the monastic ideal of prayer and work familiar to the friars at Michelham Priory: as long as you aren’t afraid of going outdoors and getting calluses all/over your grubby hands […] I gained my expertise through hard work and experience. He clears nettles that are, covering the whole area with stinging poison, carefully prepares the ground, making raised beds by edging them, with some planks. He works rich yeasty fertiliser into newly turned earth, and begins to plant out his garden. We try to coax forth some of our herbs from seeds, other we try to rejuvenate from old roots. Although separated by centuries, the poem’s intimate connection to the earth and growing resonates; time taken in careful preparation ensures that, the garden has brought to life all/the shrivelled stocks and seeds assigned to it […]. But now all my skill is required-and my learning/and eloquence as well-to present the names/and virtues of the gathered fruits, and thus/to grace these small things with my reverence for them.
He lovingly describes the plants in his small plot, mingling medicine and everyday magic with an awareness of wider economic interests. Among them Pennyroyal; a commercial commodity, reportedly valued as highly by the physicians of India/as a whole sack of black pepper amongst the Gauls; it’s medicinal actions carminative, useful to cure a sluggish stomach; and with magical properties. According to his informants, If you stick a twig of pennyroyal behind your ear, it will combat the effects of a hot summer sun.
The herbs Walafrid lists, including Agrimony, Betony, Catmint, and Sage, would be as important to an infirmary garden, as they were to his courtyard plot. They are also among the herbs we tend in this garden.
We’ve weeded out the Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert; the paths are cleared, aesthetics triumphs, at least for the moment.