Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

I must admit, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed plonking myself in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and my knitting to watch the Doctor Blake Mysteries; and yes, my primary motivation is Craig McLachlan, who has aged like a fine single malt into a handsome devil. That said, the stories are rather good too, although I am getting a little fed up with the repeated “I’ll have to review your position as police surgeon” routine every time Blake does anything. If the Inspector followed it up every time he said it, they’d have a new police surgeon every other week – and none of them would be better than the one they have now.

Anyway, what does that have to do with one of the prettier poisons? Well, it featured quite prominently in this week’s episode (I’m trying to stretch them out, the urge to binge-watch Dr Blake is huge); the victim’s digoxin medication was switched and he suffered a fatal heart attack after a rowing race, as the killer knew he would. Of course, it wouldn’t be a murder mystery without lots of other shenanigans, but that’s basically all we need to know. The clue staring the good doctor in the face was the vase of foxgloves Jean had just placed on the kitchen table… and so, the mystery was solved.

Digitalis – often in the form of digoxin – is a steroid glycoside that comes from the leaves, seeds and flowers of the foxglove and can cause irregular heartbeat, confusion and digestive upsets. In overdose, it is often fatal. It was first used in 1785 by William Withering to control an irregular heartbeat and is still in use today. An interesting feature of digitalis use – and was mentioned in Dr Blake – was that it can cause jaundiced vision, where everything looks yellow. I hadn’t realised, but there is a theory that Van Gogh’s Yellow Period was caused by digitalis toxicity, as at that time it was used to treat seizures. It has also been used in the past as a diet aid, as it can cause loss of appetite – but I suspect that the other health risks would take priority there!

For obvious reasons, I would strongly suggest not trying to self-medicate with foxglove; it is a very dangerous plant and should be kept away from children and pets because of the risk of toxicity. Enjoy the foxgloves for their beauty and leave the poisons to Dr Blake and other detective serials.

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