Although I don’t gather Foxglove for my clinic I love to see the flowers nodding in the fields and woodlands at this time of the year. Foxglove was originally called Folks glove, because it was believed that the flowers were ideal gloves for fairies or ‘the good folk’. Folks glove as a name is mentioned in a list of plants at the time of Edward III. Its Latin name (Digitalis purpurea) derives from the word Digitabulum which is a thimble.
In the old days Foxglove was used as a dressing for scrophulous sores and the juice of the flowers was prescribed boiled in wine as an expectorant. It was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1650 but it didn’t come into common use until William Withering, a doctor and amateur botanist, came across a family recipe for dropsy which contained Foxglove and was very effective. He thought it highly likely that the Foxglove was the principle active ingredient and he set about experimenting on over 200 cases which he wrote up in his ‘Account of the Foxglove’ – written in 1785.
Foxglove was grown once as a commercial crop in this country. The highest concentration of medicinal properties are found in plants which are grown in the sun, but sheltered from the wind, perhaps on the south edge of a wood or hedge bank. The leaves were used for the preparation of the drug Digitalis. Apparently two tonnes of leaves were obtained to the acre.
The cardiac glycosides in Digitalis increase the action of the heart and the arteriole muscles. Initially they cause a contraction of the heart and the arteries causing a very high rise in blood pressure. After taking a moderate dose the pulse is markedly slowed, it causes the heart to be toned and beat more regularly, particularly helpful where the heart is enlarged or dilated, allowing it to have a better more regular supply of blood. The drug takes about 12 hours to reach its full effect, and it cannot be given in high doses since it causes digestive disturbances. In small to moderate doses it is a powerful diuretic, thus helping to treat dropsy by supporting the heart and removing excess fluid.
Although in carefully controlled circumstances it is a lifesaver, Digitalis is a potentially dangerous drug. It tends to accumulate in the body and may suddenly manifest its toxicity, causing a dramatic decrease in blood pressure and a wildly irregular heart beat. You won’t be surprised to hear that Foxglove is not a herb that I use in my clinic.
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