Willaimson's Weekly Nature Notes August 13 2008

FOXGLOVES were the best treatment for a scabby head, thought Mr Nicholas Culpeper. A kindly man, whose Spitalfields herbal shop was open to the ailing and sick for free advice, this father of seven fought with Cromwell against the Royalists. Today he might have been Health Minister in the Labour government.

His contemporary Samuel Pepys, the diarist, who worked in the Admiralty, may have been a customer. He certainly shared the same bright and entertaining method of communication.

Culpeper had plenty more to say on the foxglove in 1650: "The decoction hereof made up with sugar or honey is available to both cleanse and purge the body both upwards and downwards, sometimes of tough phlegm and clammy humours and to open obstructions of the liver and spleen.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It has been found by experience to be available for the King's-evil, the herb bruised or applied or an ointment made with the juice thereof, and so used; and a decoction of two handfuls thereof, with four ounces of polypody in ale, has been found by late experience to cure divers of the falling sickness ..."

Culpeper thought the flower came under the dominion of Venus and had a gentle cleansing quality, and ' ... withal very friendly to nature'.

Much later apothecaries, true scientists in fact, found that foxglove wasn't that friendly.

Although known famously for its digitalis heart drug that slowed the heart speed successfully, the exact dosage took much longer to discover and not before there had been fatalities.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Even in recent times a doctor was called to a man treated for breathlessness by an old lady who lived in a wood. This amateur herbalist had prescribed foxglove tea made from leaves. She had also told her patient to eat foxglove sandwiches.

During the second world war, County Herb Committees collected foxglove leaves and the WIs helped by drying thousands of these leaves in their spare rooms and even bedrooms. From these, digitoxin and digoxin were extracted for heart treatment.

Dropsy (accumulation of fluid in the tissues - a complaint suffered by Beethoven) was also cured by foxglove because it strengthened the heart allowing the kidneys to function correctly.

For myself, foxgloves bring back childhood memories of putting th emitten-shaped flowers on the fingertips to simulate what we thought foxes might once have done.

I took the photo above in the woods here after a clear-felling opened up the ground for the first time in 60 years or more.