Digitalis Purpurea – the Foxglove: An Appreciation

“Most species [of Foxglove] are perennial, which is a convenience, and they have other merits, but none has the presence or force of Digitalis Purpurea. Its habitant in the wild are varied. We associate it with woodland but seed lies dormant for many years until the wood is coppiced, or until large gaps are created by a storm, and light is at last admitted.” Country Life, 1990

Harold Bloom’s famous essay, the Anxiety of Influence, describes the idea of the strong poet. The poet who does not suffer from the crippling fear of the influence of those who came before. What the strong poet writes comes to occupy a special place in the human imagination. The place occupied by some poets and not others is mirrored in the way some things occupy our imaginations more strongly than others. The strongest poets echo, quote, reflect and, in their lack of fear, they transcend the past. They write words so the interplay between creator and created is made clear. But things that come to occupy a place in our minds are not creators but subjects. They can have no anxiety, but they have plenty of influence. So, why one thing and not another.

Some plants and flowers are stronger in the human imagination than others. They are complex in the associations that they create in us. They transcend other plants by carrying us to many places at once. The poppy. The rose. The tulip and daffodil. Each takes our imagination on a particular journey when we read, hear, see or smell them. The poppy is heroin and the First World War. The rose is both the thorn and true love. The commodification and the romanticism of the tulip and the daffodil are as one. These associations are a densely tangled cacophony of memory, quotation, school recital, time and place.

While we do not want or need to make a league table, my candidate for the strongest of the strong flowers, is none of these. For me, that which makes the most densely packed set of associations and contradictions in the human imagination, a cousin of hemlock in impact, an associate of penicillin in medicinal capacity and the sister of the rose in beauty, albeit an unusual and quirky kind, is the foxglove. Digitalis.

But the question is why?

Let us begin with the name. The Foxglove is said to have appeared in a list of plants from the time of Edward III. But is first described by Fuchsius. After the success of his Method of Curing Syphilis (Metodus curandi morbi Gallici), Remaclus Fuchsius of Limburg published his nomenclature of plants in 1542.  Fuchsius is also known as Fuchs which means Fox in German and the colour fuchsia, the colour of digitalis purpurea,  is named after him. Fushsius gave the flower its scientific name, commenting that up to this time there was no accepted name for the plant in Latin or Greek. Digitalis is “in allusion to the German name of Fingerhut, which signifies a finger-stall, from the blossoms resembling the finger of a glove.” We know this because William Withering tells us in his An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medical Uses with Practical Remarks on Dropsy, and other Diseases, published in 1785. We will return to wonderfully named William Withering later, but his christening of the Foxglove opens up the whole world of etymology, the origins of names. The origins ascribed by Fuchsius were extended by the pioneering photographer, William Fox Talbot, who had a side line in etymology. He published his English Etymologies in 1847. He tells us that in Welsh the Foxglove is called maneg ellyllon, or fairies glove. It is also Ffyon. In the London library edition of this book, in spidery pencil lines, someone has written, “in Ireland fairy thimble”.

Fox Talbot speculates in a wonderfully Victorian way that “in the days of our ancestors, as everyone knows, these little elves were called in English, “the good folks.” No doubt then, these flowers were called “the good folks’ gloves,” a name since shortened into foxgloves, because it was believed that if you used the names of fairies you would attract their attention. Indeed, if a Foxglove bends towards you as you walk by it is not the wind. The Fairies have recognised you as a kindred spirit.  In contrast, he tells us, the Greeks called it the “trumpet flower”. One hundred and ninety pages later, Fox Talbot, returns to the theme and tells us that they are also known as “Witches Thimbles”. The Fairies have been replaced by witches, the good folk, by the bad. Perhaps. But witches are also interchangeable at times with wise old women and these in turn were often midwives. Foxglove was used in child birth if contractions were not progressing quickly enough. This led to an association with Venus and in turn to the Virgin Mary. As usual with digitalis good and bad are bound together in beauty.

In 1863, R.C.A. Prior entered the fray with his On the popular names of British plants.  Using the Norwegian name, Revbieldle, fox-bell, as his evidence, he tells us that the original name was Foxes-glew or music. Later, he also tells us that they were also called Lady’s Fingers. They do, in fact look like mittens and bells.

They also often grow around foxes’ lairs or foxes make their lairs around the places that they grow. And they are poisonous. So, tales began that foxes would wear them as mittens to cover the sound of their approach. Witches would use them in brews to kill their enemies. Fairies would wear them as gloves because of the wonderful colours. And bees are provided with a landing platform from which to collect pollen by the bell-shaped petals. There are many names for fox gloves involving bees.

These myriad tales and origins weave together. Thimbles, mittens, gloves, fingers, witches, foxes, bells, bees. Withering. Fox Talbot. Fuchs/Fox. A plant that can grow as tall as a human and can kill that human or help it be born. With colours that can enchant, tempt you in. The source for John Wyndham’s classic The Day of the Triffids. The story of plants that nearly destroy humanity. The abiding human fear of extinction. Perhaps?

This is the second layer of their place in our imagination.

According to Walter Sneader’s, Drug Discovery, the Myddvai a family of 13th century Welsh healers used the foxglove to relieve “headache, abscesses and cancerous growths.” It had been well known as a folk cure for centuries. It was not until 1775 that it began to be brought into systematic use, though for much of the 19th century in the wrong way, with highly variable and often fatal results.

William Withering was one of the richest physicians outside London. He learned of the use of Foxglove when he was asked, in 1775, to give his opinion of a cure long kept secret by an old women in Shropshire who “sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed”. Impressed he tried Foxglove on 163 of his poorer patients, recording each case. “It would have been an easy task to have given select cases, whose successful treatment would have spoken in favour of the medicine…But Truth and Science would condemn the procedure. I have therefore mentioned every case in which I have prescribed the Foxglove.” Many were cured, at least for a time. Many others died.  Much of Withering’s book is concerned with the way in which the foxglove allowed patients to produce a large amount urine. In 1799, Ferriar showed that the increase in urine was not as important as the power of foxglove to increase and regularise the pulse rate. The pharmacologist Ludwig Traube then proved the stimulating effects of the foxglove on heart muscles in 1850. It was only after 1901 when the heart could be accurately measured using polygraphs and electrocardiographs that the real use of digitalis in atrial fibrillation could be fully established. Digitalis is a natural form of steroid, used to strength the heart beat during heart failure. Withering was the Michele Ferrari, of day, but before steroids were called steroids. He had no idea what he was doing, using a process of trial and error. I suspect Ferrari was the same.

They called this ‘digitalin’, a name also applied to various products obtained by other workers. Digitoxin, the principal cardiotonic glycoside present in the leaves of Digitalis purpurea, was isolated in 1875 by Schmiedeberg at the University of Strassburg…The structure of digitoxigenin was determined by Walter Jacobs and his colleagues at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, but it was not until 1962 that chemists at Sandoz in Basle elucidated the structure of the sugar residue and hence that of the entire molecule of digitoxin…In the late 1920s, it was discovered that the powdered leaves of Digitalis lanata, once popularly known as ‘woolly foxglove’, had greater physiological activity than those of Digitalis purpurea. This led Sydney Smith of Burroughs Wellcome in London to isolate digoxin. This is now used more than either powdered digitalis leaves or digitoxin since it does not bind as strongly to proteins in the tissues and plasma, resulting in less delay before a therapeutic concentration of unbound drug can build up.