Foxgloves – also known as Fairy Gloves, Lion’s Mouth and Witches’ Fingers – have long featured in herbal medicine, the leaves used as infusions and compresses. But it was in the 1780s that William Withering, Shropshire-born botanist and physician, discovered the plant’s most potent use is for the slowing and strengthening of the heartbeat. In 1785 he published An account of the foxglove in which he outlined his findings and the results of his clinical trials. Foxgloves are also highly toxic, so getting the precise dosage was absolutely critical. Nevertheless, efficacy won over potential risk and eventually the active principles, digitoxin and digoxin were isolated and purified. These are still used in mainstream medicine, though the source of choice is a European species Digitalis lanata.
In his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey also tells the story of how my corner of Shropshire on Wenlock Edge played its part during World War II when the import of European foxglove supplies was foiled by war. Apparently the foxgloves growing on certain areas of eroded limestone were especially potent. And until 1949 large quantities of the plants were also gathered across the county by members of Women’s Institutes, the leaves put to dry in nets in bakery lofts and clothes drying rooms.
The foxglove in the photo is growing in a shady corner of the garden. It brought itself there a while back and in real life is of a colour more rosy pink than purple. In monochrome, though, there’s a compelling eeriness about it. Witches’ thimbles, eh.