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Foxglove: A Romance

Susan Wittig Albert's Plant Mysteries
by Susan Wittig Albert
July 4, 2004

1pt.gif (86 bytes) It all started in the English spring of 1768, in the county of Shropshire, when Dr. William Withering rode out to make a house call on Miss Helena Cooke. The young lady’s illness confined her to her home and required the good doctor to visit frequently. Nature took its course, as nature often does, and the two young people fell in love. Dr. Cooke proposed marriage and Miss Cooke accepted. 
Because of Miss Cooke's confining illness, however, the engagement was a lengthy one. The young lady filled her idle hours by painting water colors of plants and flowers. As a medical student, Dr. Withering had found botany exceedingly dull and disagreeable, but his fiancee's fascination with plants quite naturally charmed him. Since his medical practice took him on long horseback rides throughout the Shropshire countryside, he often brought back interesting specimens for her to paint. By the time they were married in 1774, Dr. Withering was as passionate about plants as was his new wife, and he became interested in the folklore surrounding some of these. 
1pt.gif (86 bytes)One object of the doctor's passion was the foxglove, a tall perennial with bell-shaped flowers arranged along the long stem. The Latin name of the plant comes from the word for "finger" (digitus), but the plant has a great many more colorful folk names: fairy caps, fairybells, folks glove, and dead men’s bells. The plant was supposed to be picked carefully, with the left hand, from the north side of a hedge. 
1pt.gif (86 bytes)But Doctor Withering had other reasons for his interest in foxglove. The year after his marriage, he acquired a secret herbal recipe from an old Shropshire witch-woman. She had used this recipe, which contained foxglove and other herbs, to successfully treat dropsy--the disease we now know as congestive heart failure. Dr. Withering began to experiment with foxglove, administering it in different forms and dosages and carefully observing its effect on his patients. From his observations, he learned that the plant increased the strength and efficiency of the heart muscle without requiring more oxygen. He also learned that the best effects were obtained from the leaves of a two-year-old plant, gathered just before it bloomed. He didn’t bother to gather it with his left hand, but he had learned that folk wisdom is sometimes more than ignorant superstition. 
1pt.gif (86 bytes)By 1780, the success of Dr. Withering's clinical trials had encouraged him to recommend foxglove to his fellow practitioners. Five years later, he published his now-classical study, "Account of the Foxglove," and many physicians began to administer the herb to their patients. Unfortunately, some of them did not follow Dr. Withering's careful practices. Over the decades after the publication of his book, a great many people died from the improper use of this plant, which became commonly known by its Latin name: Digitalis purpurea. But eventually, its administration was standardized and digitalis--as its extract was now called--became a safer medicine. 
1pt.gif (86 bytes)In my Texas hill country garden, I haven’t had a lot of luck with foxglove. But Texan herbalists Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, in their helpful book Southern Herb Growing, describe it as a "biennial that can be grown throughout the South, except in southernmost Florida." Plant the seed in shady areas, in rich, moist soil, and water it regularly. Look for its blooms in the second year. 
1pt.gif (86 bytes)If you use digitalis, you can thank Dr. Withering and his Shropshire witch-woman for solving the mysteries of this life-saving herb--and you can thank the doctor’s youthful romance with his pretty young patient for inspiring his interest in plants. But foxglove can be fatal. Enjoy it for its beauty, admire it for its life-saving potency, and give it all the respect it deserves. 

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com

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