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Wild Foxglove: The Magic and Medicine of Digitalis purpurea, part 2

(In the last post, a man was dying of heart and kidney conditions. This happened in the late 1700s, so the cliffhanger aspect of this segue is a little dimmed.)


After leaving his care for a time, Dr. Withering’s patient came back, not only alive, but improved. He showed Withering a bag of herbs a healing woman in Shropshire had given him.  Curious to know what could have wrought this change, Withering searched the bag, and identified one of the herbs as foxglove. For ten years, he conducted studies on digitalis, experimenting on his patients. (If this sounds barbaric, just thoroughly check the side effects of any cardiovascular medication today. Also their success rates. Then contemplate how far medicine and politics have got us.) One of the things Dr. Withering discovered was something folk healers had known for a long time: the wrong dose of digitalis means that the patient dies.

Despite the errors and their attendant embarrassments, Withering forged on with his scientific studies,  and in 1785 published a paper which established foxglove as a heart medicine in the world of the lettered. It has continued to be an important heart medicine to the current day: digitalin is one of the few drugs which can’t be simulated in the lab. Pharmaceutical companies must get it from plantations of foxgloves.

Maude Grieve, in the early nineteenth century, was a professional foxglove grower and supplier. She also grew other medicinal herbs, and did tremendous amounts of research and observation on the active ingredients of the plants that she grew. She had to: her suppliers wanted a superior product. Grieve also knew enormous amounts about the particular cultivation requirements of every plant, and how to use them medicinally.

In the 1930s, she put all this down in her Modern Herbal, still an industry standard. After antibiotics came in in the 1940s, the herbal materia medicas became obsolete, and herb growers were relegated to the fanatic fringe. Herbs had lost clout: instead, plant drugs were isolated and synthesized into pills, which were more modern, and could have standardized dosages. Educated people (with possibly a little backing from the pharmaceutical companies) excommunicated herbs from their medical practices, and even made laws against people who used them.

So the 1930s, when Grieve was writing, was a pinnacle of Western European scientific knowledge about herbs. In the last few decades, Germany and the U.K. have undertaken scientific research on medicinal herbs, but there is still great, unmined value in the hands-on and historical knowledge that Grieve wrote down.

Grieve says that Welsh healers were using foxglove in ointments in the thirteenth century, and that digitalis was little-known, but included as a heart remedy in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1650. This (or a later edition) may have been where Dr. Withering looked it up, in his search to find the medicine in the healer woman’s bag of herbs. So he wasn’t the first lettered man to know what foxglove did, but he was the one who worked it out according to science, and spread the news to his world.

After describing its historical uses, Grieve goes into detail about how foxglove was used at the time she was writing.  Firstly, she explains that the active constituents of foxglove are stronger in the stem leaves than in the bottom ones of the rosette.


Then she describes foxglove’s uses for heart and kidney conditions, as well as internal hemorrhages, inflammatory disease, delirium tremens, epiliepsy, acute mania, and other diseases. It’s clear that medical practice had gotten much more precise with the use of foxglove, because she outlines all the cautions taken in using it. ” The action of Digitalis in all the forms in which it is administered should be carefully watched, and when given over a prolonged periodit should be employed with caution, as it is liable to accumulate in the system and to manifest its presence all at once by its poisonous action, indicated by the pulse becoming irregular, the blood-pressure low, and gastro-intestinal irritations setting in.”

One of the stranger symptoms of overdose is seeing everything in shades of blue. But this can be remedied, Grieve says, by administering aconite (monkshood) , just as foxglove is an antidote for aconite poisoning.  Aconite’s name is derived from either a kind of dart, a rocky cliff, or its place of origin. Maybe there’s a reason that the plant of the witches and healers balances the actions of a plant named after hooded Christian monks, homeland, and hard, sharp things. And vice versa.

Next post: Digitalis purpurea in the garden and vase: plus, the secret names and associations of foxglove

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • jodi January 20, 2009, 6:50 pm

    Awesome. Utterly fascinating to read this, I’ll be back for more!

  • Pomona Belvedere January 21, 2009, 2:17 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it. I find your site information-rich also!

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