Country mouse on the foxglove

The start of high summer: barbecues, Royal Ascot, strawberries, Wimbledon and the failure of our football team. Everything is growing at a phenomenal rate and, this year, the wild foxgloves and roses have been exceptional. The foxglove, in particular, marks the turning of the year, when spring’s verdant greens start to tinge.

Its name appears to relate to the plant being found in foxy places-steep, often shady, banks and beside woods and copses. Children cannot resist using the flowers as glove puppets, however, the plant is also highly toxic. Despite this, foxgloves had a significant role in herbal medicine, especially as a cure for dropsy, but with unpredictable results. Sometimes, a cure was achieved, but, on other occasions, it proved fatal.

In the 18th century, the physician William Withering studied the plant and his findings saw the start of modern pharmacology. Withering discovered that the principle action of the plant was on the heart, which it slowed and strengthened, allowing the kidneys and lungs to clear the excess fluid caused by dropsy.

However, the dosage was critical, a fraction too high and it could stop the heart completely. Withering insisted, henceforth, that small, correctly measured quantities of the leaf be used, leading to the new discipline of medicine that we know today.

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