Withering Heights

From winter through spring, you’ll find Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) flowering in The Huntington’s Herb and Shakespeare Gardens. It’s a wonderful biennial we treat as an annual, bolting with a tall raceme (a one-stemmed inflorescence with stalked flowers) that continues to produce flowers at its apex until some point of exhaustion. The tubular flowers are perfect for bumblebee visitation, flaunting striking spots botanists call nectar guides.

Foxglove is an old cottage garden favorite, pulled into cultivation from native wild forms in England and continental Europe, and now showing up in cool seasons gardens and cool moist climates around the world. As with practically any native plant that was collected or cultivated, Foxglove was attributed medicinal value, but little of distinction in earlier days. From Gerard (1597): Foxeglove boiled in water or wine, and drunken, doth cut and consume the thicke toughnesse of a grosse and slimie flegme and naughtie humours; it openeth also the stopping of the liver, spleene, and milt, and of other inward parts… The same taken in like manner, or boiled with honied water or sugar, doth scoure and clense the brest, ripeneth and bringeth forth tough and clammie flegme… They serve for the same purposes whereunto Gentian doth tender, and hath been used insteade thereof, as saith Galen.” Elizabeth Blackwell (1737, text taken from Joseph Miller, 1722) shows even less interest: “This Plant is but rarely used inwardly, being a strong Emetic working with violence upward and downwards. Parkinson extolls a decoction of it in Ale with Polypoidy (fern) roots, as an approved medicine for ye Falling Sickness (epilepsy). The late Doctor Hulse commends ye ointment made of the flowers and May Butter (butter specifically made for medicinal use), for Scrophulous Ulcers which run much, dressing them with the ointment and purging two or three times a week with proper purges. The official Preparation is the Urguentum Digitalis.”

Foxglove, from Blackwell, 1737, Plate 16

Three decades after Blackwell’s publication, the fortunes of Foxglove changed. By 1775, English medical botanist William Withering (an early adherent of the Linnaean system who published the first British flora using Linné’s organization) observed that tea made with Foxglove leaves alleviates dropsy, edema related to congestive heart failure. By 1785, Withering had reported his study and conclusions and was also inducted as a member of the Royal Society. But having shared his Foxglove data and treatment with associate Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles Darwin, author of the noted and somewhat excessive poem The Botanic Garden, and member of the Royal Society) Withering was scooped in what is an early documented case of intellectual theft. Darwin, known as conceited and overbearing, felt title to claiming observations about the effectiveness of Foxglove as his own, an assumption that did not sit well with Withering or others.

Over the decades, the Withering tale was embellished with quaint overtones. But the original account (cited below) sets the record straight from the outset. Today, the mechanism of cardiac glycosides that constitute digitalin is understood, and historians consider Withering’s 1785 report as the beginning of therapeutic medicine.

Note: The common name Foxglove is said to have been introduced by Leonhart Fuchs in 1542. His surname, Fuchs is German for Fox, which is amusing when we remember that a completely different plant (Fuchsia) was named in his honor. Curiously, the color, fuchsia was derived from a characteristic floral color of the American plant Fuchsia, which honors a man named for foxes.

William Withering, 1785. An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses. Project Gutenberg: http://library.umac.mo/ebooks/b2834599x.pdf

Dennis Krinkler, 1985. “Withering and the foxglove: the making of a myth”, Br. Heart J., 54:256-257. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC481892/pdf/brheartj00117-0030.pdf

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