I spent some time the other week watching a bumblebee as it worked its way around the tapering tubular flowers of a Foxglove. This particular plant was one of a number which have become established within the garden, their spires of colourful flowers recalling the shady woodland of my youth and a welcome addition to the garden. Each flower has now faded and shrivelled to a thin papery brown ball and the bees have moved on to other opportunities.
The Foxglove is one of those plants which has a strong folk tradition and I often see reference to the plant in the context of fairies and other wondrous woodland folk. Some authors have gone so far as to suggest that the origins of the name ‘foxglove’ are rooted in a corruption of ‘folks glove’, alluding to the fairy folk. However, this association is almost certainly incorrect, since the association in Old English is clearly with the fox, with ‘glofa’ being a glove or mitten. Perhaps the link with the fox comes from the shady woodland habitats which both the plant and fox favour.
Regardless of its origins, the Foxglove remains a very interesting plant and most readers will know that it is the source of digitalin, a drug used in the treatment of various heart conditions. All parts of the Foxglove plant are poisonous and contain compounds known as cardiac glycosides, which act to both slow and strengthen the heartbeat. However, the dosage is critical; get it wrong and the heart will stop beating altogether. Worryingly perhaps, the plant is mentioned in many old herbals and it was widely used as a treatment for various ailments, from sore throats and ulcers to dropsy, the latter treatment often proving either dramatically effect or fatal. It was not until the late Eighteenth Century that the workings of the drug became more fully understood. William Withering, a doctor working at Birmingham General Hospital and a member of the Royal Society, established how the active ingredients in the plant worked and calculated the rates at which doses should be applied. It is because of this work that Withering is now regarded by many as the grandfather of pharmacology.
Today the drug is derived from the Woolly Foxglove, a closely related species found across much of Eastern Europe. During the Second World War, when access to overseas supplies of the plant were greatly restricted, we turned to our native Foxglove, which was harvested in vast quantities by members of the Women’s Institute. The drugs derived from the humble Foxglove have an important role within modern medicine and some readers may be using them without even knowing it, making this a plant worthy of our affections.