Dear Readers, I can never get past my mental image of a fox tiptoeing around the garden wearing pink ‘gloves’ on each foot when I look at this plant. The allusion goes right back to the Anglo Saxon, when it was known as ‘foxes glova‘, and the Latin name digitalis means ‘finger-like’. In some parts of the country it is also known as fairy gloves. I remember putting the spent blooms on my fingers and drawing little faces on them when I was a child, and Richard Mabey reports how, by leaving the stem of each flower intact, they can be turned into ‘claws’. In Vickery’s Folk Flora, there are many tales of children using the flowers as tiny balloons, holding each end of the flower and pushing the ends until they popped. It was also considered a great game to capture a bumblebee inside one of the flowers, and to delight in its frantic buzzing. In the Forest of Dean, foxgloves were known as ‘snowpers’, and a favourite admonition to a noisy child was ‘Shut thee chops; thee bist like a bumble bee in a snowper’. Certainly these always feel like the most playful of plants, and from memory they seemed to be in full bloom at just about the time that the school holidays started.
Foxgloves are certainly having their moment ‘in the sun’ (though they are actually woodland flowers and most varieties don’t thrive without some shade). Every time I go to the garden centre there seem to be new varieties in every shade of cream, apricot, white and pink. They are biennials, bulking up during year one and producing flowers in year two. They self-seed enthusiastically, and are beloved by bumblebees. Digitalis purpurea is native to most of temperate Europe, but is also naturalised in many parts of North America. It is, rather counter-intuitively, a member of the plantain family (Plantaginaceae) which has been muchly enlarged of late.
The story of foxgloves, however, is most closely associated with its toxicity and its medicinal properties. The leaves of foxglove were long used as a diuretic against dropsy (fluid accumulation), but it was also known that foxglove was toxic, and that giving the wrong dosage could be fatal. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey describes how it was a study of the plant’s usage by botanist and physician William Withering that created the split between traditional herbalism and modern pharmacology.
Withering realised that the principal action of foxglove was on the heart, slowing and strengthening its beat and hence, in dropsy, stimulating the kidneys to clear fluid from the body. He also noted that the leaf could be useful in cases of heart failure. However, he insisted on carefully measured doses of the dried leaf, and was aware that too high a dose could cause the heart to falter and cease. Over time, the foxglove’s key active ingredient, digitalis, was isolated and purified, and is used today (as digitoxin and digoxin) for heart conditions. Incidentally, if you have an elderly relative taking either of these drugs who seems to be in a habit of falling, do check that the drug is not lowering blood pressure too much. Dad had six falls in as many months until a junior doctor checked his medication and realised what was happening.
These days, the chemicals for medication are largely prepared from imported leaves of a European foxglove, Digitalis lanata. However, during both World Wars the leaves were gathered and dried by members of The Womens’ Institute, just to make sure that there was an adequate supply. In 1941 the women of the Oxfordshire Women’s Institute collected enough foxglove leaves to provide 350,000 doses of the drug (enough to treat 1,000 patients for a year). Never underestimate a group of woman on a mission.
Although the plant is very poisonous, it is also emetic, which means that you are likely to vomit before suffering the worst cardiac effects. However, it was used as a salad ingredient by someone trying to murder their husband (in Colorado in 2010). The husband realised that the salad tasted bitter, but thought it was one of these antsy-fancy new leaves that are all the rage (I can relate). He suffered a gastrointestinal upset but survived, and his wife was sentenced to four and a half years in jail.
In the Vickery book mentioned earlier, it seems that foxglove was also used for a deeply sinister purpose: the killing of unwanted children. There are several folk legends indicating that foxglove is poisonous to ‘fairies’, and it was used as a test to see if a sickly child was a changeling ( a fairy child who had been exchanged for the original human child) in both County Leitrim and Caernarvonshire, the latter as recently as 1857. A child was given a small dose of foxglove, and it was believed that if the child was human, it would survive, whereas if it was a fairy it would die. It would not take a very large dose to kill a child, especially one who was already ill. Vickery comments that
‘Thus it seems that the use of foxglove (and other ordeals to which supposed changelings were subjected) might have been an acceptable method of infanticide which enabled families to rid themselves of sickly offspring‘.
The poisonous nature of the plant doesn’t put off the caterpillars of the foxglove pug moth (Eupithecia pulchellata), who feed on the internal parts of the flowers, after sewing them shut with silk. Both moth and caterpillar are unassuming in appearance, but for sheer ingenuity I think they deserve a brief moment of fame here.
And now, a picture. Regular readers will know of my fondness for Vincent Van Gogh, who loved flowers of all kinds so much that I believe he saw into their innermost nature. The portrait below shows Dr Paul Gachet, a homeopath and medical doctor, who took care of Van Gogh following his release from the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence, and was with the artist for the last few months of his life. Following an inauspicious start, Van Gogh grew to love Dr Gachet, describing him as ‘a true friend, something like another brother’. The portrait shows Dr Gachet with a bunch of foxgloves, probably as an indication of his medical background. Van Gogh painted two versions of the picture, and said that:
“I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later”.
Six weeks later, Van Gogh shot himself in the woods surrounding Dr Gachet’s home.
In 1990 the painting was bought by Ryoei Saito, chairman of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co, for $82m, making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time. The 75 year-old businessman was so fond of the painting that he threatened to have it cremated with him. When Saito died in 1996, the painting seems to have been sold, but the new owner suffered financial problems and sold it on again. Like so many masterpieces, it is probably now in a vault somewhere, or in a secret private collection.
And of course, a poem. Here is ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’ by Anne Stevenson, which manages to combine close observation with a sly humour.
The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves
In eight pages of The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (London, 1876: 81–88), Charles Darwin describes an experiment he began in June 1869 among the fox- gloves of North Wales, this just one of his thousands of experiments demonstrating the superiority of cross-fertilization and throwing light on the origin of sexuality.
Photo Two by user janenannierocks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 3702949 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20563006