BLOODY fingers, dead men's bells, fairy caps and lion's mouth - alternative names for the foxglove, Monmouthshire's county flower -hint at poisonous and dark mythology. But this striking countryside plant has also played a vital role in the development of heart medicine. ANDY RUTHERFORD reports.
REGULAR roamers of the south east Wales countryside cannot fail to have encountered the foxglove, a common feature of, among other habitats, woodland clearings, heathland and hillsides.
It is fond too of sprouting on waste ground, and is also used as a colourful addition to garden borders, usually at the back, given that it can grow to a height of six or seven feet.
It can be found across much of the UK, its tubular purple flowers, spotted white and purple inside, easily recognisable from June to September.
Its status as a 'county flower' is relatively new, dating back to the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 2002, when the charity Plantlife (www.plantlife.org.uk) - which works to raise awareness of, celebrate and protect wild flowers, plants and fungi, and which has the Prince of Wales as its patron - sought to mark the occasion by asking people to vote for the wild flower they believed best represented the character of their county.
The aim was to help reverse a decline in wild flowers stretching back decades and caused largely by changes in farming methods and the loss to development of many areas of countryside.
Plantlife's designation of counties in Wales does not appear to follow the current 22 local authorities model, so it is likely that the term 'Monmouthshire' covers a wider area than we would recognise as official.
Cardiff folk voted for the wild leek, on Anglesey the spotted rock rose got the nod, while cuckoo flower, spiked speedwell and whorled caraway were among the choices in other parts of Wales. Monmouthshire voted for the foxglove.
It should be pointed out that the term 'foxglove' in this context refers to digitalis pupurea, the common foxglove, as opposed to other rarer types of the plant.
It is a member of the scrophulariaceae family of flowering plants, but in the interests of keeping things simple, 'foxglove' will suffice.
Get up close and it is common to see bees disappearing into the flower bell, foxglove having a valuable role to play as an aid to bees and other pollinators, helping the fight to arrest these creatures' potentially catastrophic decline.
The process is beautifully described in my partner's recently acquired copy of The Observer's Book of Wild Flowers, in a passage probably dating from the book's 1937 edition, rather than this generally updated 1963 version, due to the use of the word 'humblebee' instead of the latterly ubiquitous 'bumblebee':
"Fertilisation is effected by humblebees, their hairy bodies brush up the pollen and convey it to the stigma of an older flower." Lucky old foxglove.
The purple exterior of the flower is eyecatching, but it is inside that the colourful detail can be seen, white and darker purple spots of varying sizes giving its opening a dappled appearance.
But here's the rub, perhaps an inappropriate turn of phrase regarding the foxglove. For this a plant that is pretty but poisonous.
It really should be a case of look, but do not touch. But if handling foxglove is necessary, most obviously in the context of gardening, it is advised to wear gloves, as skin contact can cause a rash, and headaches and nausea have also been reported. All parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten, and medical advice should be sought.
The humble foxglove however, has played a major part in medicinal advance.
Late in the 18th Century, English botanist William Withering blazed the trail in what would now be called the research and development of a treatment for heart failure, having worked out that digitalis was the active ingredient in a concoction used by a country herbalist to treat what was then commonly known as dropsy.
Nowadays, under expert cultivation, digitalis-derived treatments are still used to treat heart conditions, for instance atrial fibrillation, a form of irregular heartbeat.
With the foxglove, as with many other wild flowers, there comes a wealth of history, dubious or otherwise. Much of it falls into the category of old wives' tale, and you could lose yourself in it.
Best perhaps just to get out into the fresh air - and though it is a common sight, next time you come across a foxglove you might see it in a new light.