top of page

Life, death, sex, and mutant flowers

by Richard Mandelbaum

One recent year I was delighted to have a mutant in my garden. It was a flower of the common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. The plant dances around the land outside my house from year to year, germinating and growing in unexpected places. But this one was unexpected in a more surprising way.


An open and strange-looking pink flower.
The unexpected mutant foxglove.

Flowers are in essence all about sex, but more on that later. First a bit about foxglove itself. Digitalis is a perfect example of how even those who dismiss herbal medicine rely on it on a regular basis, even if they do so ignorantly.

Before saying more, please note that this is a dangerous plant, in fact one of the most poisonous ones in North America, and although there may be some skilled practitioners still using it, in general we never want to ingest even minute amounts.

Foxglove has a long and documented use as a remedy for congestive heart failure, historically called dropsy. It was brought into Western mainstream prominence by William Withering, an English physician who in 1785 wrote An Account of the Foxglove and some of its Medical Uses. As is often the case, Withering first learned of foxglove’s potency and uses from a traditional woman healer in his region. He had the good sense to pay attention, and to his (partial) credit openly acknowledged the source of his information, although Wikipedia wrongly credits him as having “discovered” foxglove as medicine. Withering’s admission stands somewhat in contrast to many people (er, white men) who throughout history have appropriated traditional knowledge and then claimed it as their own.

Although whole plants and whole plant extracts have been largely excluded from mainstream medical practice in the United States, digoxin derived from the naturally occurring cardiac glycosides in foxglove (D. purpurea and D. lanata) is widely prescribed today. Digoxin is only one of many pharmaceuticals (some estimates put it at 25 percent or so) that simply would not exist were it not for traditional herbal medicine, the most famous being aspirin. Even when in the form of synthetic digoxin we herbalists can proudly state that the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors about foxglove continues to save lives in hospitals every day.

Spotted pink flowers.
In contrast, here is what foxglove typically looks like.

The mutant foxglove in my garden inspired me to reflect on the flower’s powerful link to life and death itself—prolonging life for those near the end, ending life prematurely for those not careful with it—and how flowers, life, and death are interwoven in an inextricable web.

Mutation is not only a natural aspect of the life cycle, it is a necessary one. It is natural selection before our eyes. If for instance this odd foxglove flower in my garden were structured in such a way that facilitated higher rates of pollination (by attracting more pollinating insects for example) it would tend to produce more seeds, and therefore have a higher rate of reproduction, which could in turn begin to alter the species as a whole. In truth we are all mutants, in the sense that we are all genetic mash-ups of our parents’ genomes.

Genetics is far from the magic-bullet explanation for life itself that it had until recently been touted as. Epigenetics—how genes are activated including our own ability to influence and even pass this on to the next generation—is now receiving deserved attention. In addition many organisms reproduce asexually, and some microorganisms can even directly transfer genes from individual to individual, even across species.

But putting that aside for the moment, we can say that sexual reproduction remains the main tool in the adaptation toolkit of life. This is evolution as Darwin described it: at its heart, sex. And along with sex, the mixing of characteristics (Darwin didn’t know about genes) and increased diversity, allowing for increased adaptation to a shifting ecosystem. In fact, Darwin preferred the term transmutation of species over the already-existing term evolution. Evolution implies some progression from lower to higher, simpler to more complex, whereas what Darwin saw was a constant dynamic swirling adaptation of life in response to a changing world.

Life as we know it could not exist without sex. In turn, life and sex could not exist without death. Death is what allows generational changes resulting from sex to take hold, as the new mash-up generation replaces the old. Death is what allows dynamic adaptive life to exist in the first place. We can no more have Life without Death as we could have North without South (making the quest for immortality perhaps as perverse an idea as there could be). Life, Death, and Sex are all bound up in a glorious union, a triad that like Body-Mind-Soul are separate more in our conception than in reality, a story I was reminded of one time by a mutant flower in my garden.


Richard Mandelbaum is the co-founder of ArborVitae, as well as a core faculty member. A version of this essay was first published by Reality Sandwich.


bottom of page