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Digitalis and strophanthus—cardiac glycosides
  1. M K DAVIES,

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Digitalis lanata is shown on the 35 dinar Yugoslavian stamp from a set of nine issued in 1957, which includes the deadly nightshade and the meadow saffron. In 1966 Bulgaria also issued a set of flower stamps with the 2 stotinki value showing Digitalis purpurea. Bulgaria had previously depicted the foxglove in a set of 14 on medicinal plants in 1953. The Congo Republic issued eight stamps to commemorate the centenary of the Red Cross organisation in 1963. Strophanthus sarmentosusappeared on three of the values with the design showing a fine engraving of the plant with the emblem of the Red Cross. Also issued was a miniature sheet of three stamps showingStrophanthus andCinchona ledgeriana.

Plants are the origin of 36 cardiac glycosides being found in over 40 species contained within 36 genera and 11 families. The Ebers Papyrus of 1500 bctells of the diuretic effect of the Mediterranean squill,Drimia maritima, a member of the lily family. The purple foxglove was namedDigitalisfrom the shape of the flowers (digitus, a finger). But why “foxglove”? This is an older name and not the only one, others being fairy fingers and fairy gloves. It is said that the fairies gave the flowers to foxes to wear on their feet so that they could move in magic silence up to hens or away from men. Dr William Withering made the first scientific study of the foxglove in 1775 demonstrating its value in dropsy (oedema) but it was much later, in 1905, that Dr James Mackenzie showed that its special value was in heart failure with atrial fibrillation.

In 1930 Dr Sydney Smith isolated a new glycoside, which he called digoxin, from the Balkan or woolly foxgloveDigitalis lanata. Digoxin is extracted directly from the plant, and is not synthesised. Strophanthin is present in species of the African genusStrophanthus. It belongs to the family Apocynaceae, which also contains the plants that yield the Vinca alkaloids and reserpine. It was discovered from its use as an arrow poison, not from folk medicine.