Now is the time of the foxglove. It grows naturally and is therefore regarded by some gardeners as a weed but it is a noble flower. Upright and stately in a royal purple colour it rises above others as a bright symbol in shady places.
Why Foxglove? This strange name for the flower has been around since the 14th century and was sometimes called ‘folksglove’.
The glove part is easy to understand as the individual flowers fit neatly onto the tops of our fingers. Its Linnean name is Digitalis purpurea; digitus being the Latin word for a finger. The Latin name was given by Leonard Fuchs, a 16th century botanist and some say it was called Fuch’s glove. The flowers are said to be the homes of fairies.
Foxgloves are biennial. They grow a few leaves in the first year and in their second year they flower, produce seeds and die. We always scatter our seeds for the future. Some cultivars, usually white in colour, will grow from seed in the first year.
Foxgloves are poisonous but medically important. Dr William Wittering of the Stafford Infirmary learned from a local herbalist woman that a brew containing the leaves of foxglove was good for dropsy. He used it successfully and published his results in 1785.
Digitalis folia, brown tablets made from dried, powdered foxglove leaves became a valuable treatment for certain heart ailments. Wittering did not discover foxglove as a medicine but his contribution was to use it, and it alone, and carefully observe its effects.
Dropsy is swelling of parts of the body, usually ankles, due to excess tissue fluid. Dropsy due to heart disease responded very well to the foxglove. Dropsy due to other causes did not.
In my first year after qualifying I worked for a cardiologist. I had to adjust the dose of digitalis folia tablets. Sometimes the leaves contained more and sometimes less cardiac glycosides as the active chemicals are called. A small increase of drug would produce dramatic side effects. Patients would see the world as yellow or greenish and lights would have halos around them.
It is said that Vincent van Gogh was treated with digitalis which is why he painted in such vivid yellow colours and the stars in his night paintings were so bright.