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Biology

The foxglove is a biennial plant, but more rarely occurs as a perennial. The flowers are present from June to September (5) and are pollinated by bumble-bees (2). Plants produce prolific amounts of seed, and have a persistent seed bank; features which help to maintain the range of this species (3). Although toxic, the foxglove has been widely used in folk medicine as a cure for sore throats, as compresses for bruising and ulcers, and as a diuretic; it was, however, often fatal. The 18th Century Scottish physician William Withering made the first scientific investigation into the use of the plant. This study marked the development of modern pharmacology, and its move away from herbal medicine. He discovered that the plant contained a powerful cardio-active agent, which slowed and strengthened the heart rate, and stimulated the kidneys to clear excess fluid from the body (4). The therapeutic dose was however, very close to a lethal dose, and Withering recommended the use of repeated very small, carefully measured amounts until a therapeutic effect was attained (6). The active agents in foxglove, known as digitoxin and digoxin are still used in modern medicine to control heart rate (4). During the Second World War, foxglove leaves were collected by County Herb Committees, in order to make these drugs (4).

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