Monday, June 25, 2012

In the hedgerows

It's that time of the year, as spring blends into high summer -– such as it is in Ireland –- when the hedgerows go riotously pink with foxglove. Here is a particularly vivid patch along our road (and, yes, that is a castle in the background, a tower house of the Knight of Kerry, partly destroyed by Cromwell's army; click to enlarge).

Whence the name? Another name for the plant is fairy gloves, and that's easy enough to understand. Kids of every age and place have plucked the tube-shaped flowers and fitted them over their fingertips, a little glove on each digit. The point where the flower was attached to the stalk is a kind of hook, which means you can make a set of claws with a blossom on each finger.

It has been suggested that "fox" is a contraction of "folk's," referring to the fairy folk. Not so, says Richard Maybe in his magnificent Flora Britannica. "Fox" it is, says he, with roots in Old English. "Perhaps it is because it grows in foxy places: amongst the bracken at the edges of heaths, on steep banks above rabbit-fields, by tracks up rough hill-pastures, in glades in acid woods." There is a fox that sometimes walks along my window sill, here in my "hobbit-house" studio, but it does not wear gloves.

The plant is toxic, but was nevertheless widely used in folk medicine, sometimes effectively, sometimes fatally. Foxglove played an important role in the transformation of folk medicine into modern pharmacology. In the late 18th century, the botanist/physician William Withering investigated many cases of dropsy and its treatment with foxglove leaves, and reported his findings in a classic book, An Account of the Floxglove.

Withering recognized that the principle action of the plant was on the heart, and his studies subsequently led to the isolation of the active agent, digitalis, which is still used as a heart stimulant.

Anyway, we forego eating the leaves, and confine ourselves to finger puppets. Once the foxglove has its day, the hedgerows will explode with summer's fullness – fuchsia, montbretia, loosestrife, meadowsweet, bramble, bell-flower, yellow flags. High summer -- and maybe, just maybe, some sun.