The herbaceous border is now an exuberance of color and while most of the plants are admired solely for their appearance there are some that are beautiful and useful as well, an attribute that is much sought after by young men of a certain age who aspire to find these same qualities in a prospective mate. Two of the most striking examples of this admirable combination are the Valerian and the Foxglove.
Valerian, Valeriana officinalis, is a handsome and hardy perennial with masses of sweetly scented white flowers that has been used as a sleep aid and treatment for nervous disorders for thousands of years as it is well known by ancient Greek and Roman apothecaries.
It is also well known that its potency is greatly influenced by its culture as Dr. Hill observes in Botanical tracts (1762): “the roots of Valerian which grow upon dry hill and sun-burnt heaths, possess its virtues in the highest degree.” A peculiarity that is recognized to this day amongst herbalists.
Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, is a much more recent discovery. William Withering, who trained as a physician at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, had the novel idea of investigating medicinal tonics employed by home practitioners. An old herbalist from county Shropshire by the name of Mother Hutton purportedly had a cure for dropsy, known to modern physicians as atrial fibrillation, which seemed to be effective. Mother Hutton included over twenty ingredients in her potion but Withering, being of a scientific mind, tried them individually and discovered that foxglove was the active ingredient. He then conducted trials on over 100 patients, one of them a patient of Erasmus Darwin, great granduncle of the famous Charles Darwin. Darwin recorded the experiment in 1785 under An Account of the Successful Use of Foxglove in Some Dropsies and Pulmonary Consumption before the publication of Withering’s own work without his knowledge or permission in one of the first examples of scientific plagiarism in the modern world.