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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet


Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Foxgloves against a typical drystone wall of the Lake District.

Myself and Hubby have been lucky enough to enjoy a return visit to the Lake District but my, how the weather varies! We were last here in April when at times it was too hot to sit outside in the sun and Grandson was dousing himself with cold water. This time, most days have been a combination of low cloud, mirk and drizzle. Not that it bothers us unduly as we have all the necessary gear and have learned not to come here with preconceptions. Besides, all that rain and the local topography are perfect conditions for rhododendrons and azaleas and we were just in time to witness some truly stunning and colourful displays but what pleased me just as much as their rampant showiness, was the stately elegance of foxgloves, one of my most favourite flowers.

At home, our garden blooms with many tall spikes of mainly white or pale pink. Here, due in part I suppose to the acid soil, the colour is predominantly a vibrant shade of cerise and it's delightful seeing clumps on roadside verges and deep in gullys and woods.

They quite literally lift the heart, not least because the plants have been used in folk medicine for centuries to treat heart complaints, but it is thanks to English physician and botanist William Withering, (1741-1799) that its efficacy was proved. He made case studies of 156 of his own patients and was able to show that the drug digitalis, extracted from foxgloves, was important to their treatment for oedema, linked to heart disease. Withering's work on foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) An Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses was published in 1785 and his insights into the medical use of the plant proved crucial to our modern understanding of heart failure.

Born in Staffordshire to a father who was an apothecary, William trained after serving four years medical apprenticeship, at Edinburgh University where botany formed an important part of the curriculum. Later in his career, he would become a founding member of Birmingham General Hospital where he treated thousands of poor people, many for free.

It is the dried leaves of foxgloves that are prepared medicinally to strengthen contractions of the heart muscle and they are of course, poisonous if mis-handled. All of which begs the question I frequently ask of myself when I read of unlikely connections. How did folk medicine practitioners way back, first make the discovery that equated such beautiful wild plants with a treatment for heart disease still in use today?

Our paler, garden Foxgloves - equally beautiful...

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