Aconite

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) habitus
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) habitus

Family: Ranunculaceae + Genus: Aconitum

Type species: Aconitum napellus

Related species: Aconitum carmichaeliiAconitum feroxAconitum hemsleyanumAconitum lamarckii, Aconitum lycoctonum

Magical attributions: baneful work, death curses, lycanthropy, necromancy, shape shifting

Monkshood is a perennial, hardy plant, native to mountainous regions and uplands of Western and Central Europe. It grows up to 1,50 m tall and is characterized by a strong stem, dark green, deeply indented foliage and most prominently, deep-blue, helmet-shaped flowers. Monkshood blooms from August to September. The shape of the flowers is adopted to bumblebees, which are strong enough and possess long enough probosces to reach the bottom of the flower. Aconitum napellus featured in medieval monastery gardens.

Buff-tailed bumblebee on Wolfsbane flower
Buff-tailed bumblebee on Wolfsbane flower

Folklore: Legends have been woven around this poisonous plant, which may have been used as an arrow poison and has a history in poison murder. According to Greek legend the plant sprung from the spittle of three-headed hell hound Cerberus. It is sacred to Hekate and Wotan. Due to its toxicity is has also been referred to as “plant
arsenic” and in antiquity it was known as scorpio and thelyphonon. Another name is Wolfsbane, which may come from its use in wolf baits. The name also applies to the yellow or white flowering Aconitum lycoctonum.

Monkshood toxicity: All members in the aconite family contain a number of toxic alkaloids. Ingesting only small amounts of any part of the plant can lead to death through respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest. It should never be ingested. Gloves are recommended when handling any part of the plant.

Monkshood propagation by seed: Monkshood is a cold germinator. The seeds are best sown fresh in autumn. Or stratify the seeds in the fridge. The seeds are dormant and require the change of temperature from cold to warm. This is their signal to germinate. In nature this happens stimulated by the warming rays of the sun and snow melt. I cultivate Monkshood seedlings in pots, using a soil mix consisting of sowing compost from the garden center and normal garden soil, which contains some loam. In  late spring the young plants can be transplanted to the ground. Monkshood plants favor a mildly calciferous and humus-rich soil and a place in half shade. Best is beneath trees, where the sun light permeates.

Monkshood propagation by root: Divide the root by separating young roots and planting them in fresh soil. Cover the small roots ca. 2 cm thick with soil. New plants will show up int he following spring.

Monkshood in the garden: Monkshood likes a place under trees, where the sunlight permeates. The soil should be mildly calciferous. The shadier the spot and the moister the soil, the smaller the flowers.  Single plants can become very old, up to 50 years. Flowering may be impaired after some years. To avoid this, dig up the root, separate the younger roots and plant them anew. Cover ca. 2 cm thick with soil. Manure with compost soil in spring.

Known diseases: Monkshood is prone to root rot (caused by fungi), if the soil is too moist. It should therefore not be exposed to water logging. A clear sign is if the leaves start turning yellow and wither in the middle of the flowering season.

Further aconite species:

  • Yellow Monkshood, Healing Wolfsbane, Gift-Eisenhut (Aconitum anthora)

Native to the Alps, Spain, the Pyrenees, Croatia and Hungary, up to 150 cm tall, with bright yellow flower heads, blue-green stems and pinnatipartite leaves, considered an antidote and a counter-poison to thora buttercup (Ranunculus thora)

  • Chinese Aconite, Herbst-Eisenhut (Aconitum carmichaelii)

Native to East Asia, up to 2 m or taller, lush, bright violet-blue flowers occure in October/beginning of autumn, also known as Fu Zi, traditionally used in TCM

  • Columbian Monkshood, Western Monkshood (Aconitum columbianum)

Native to Northamerica, with blue flowers

  • Indian Aconite, Bish (Aconitum ferox)

Native to India, particularly West-Bengale (Darjeeling Hills), flowers of varying color from blue-purple to pale white, yellow or pink; contains large amounts of Pseudoaconitine (nepaline), considered the most poisonous plant in the world

  • Yellow or Northern Wolfsbane, Lamarck’s Aconite, Pyrenäen-Eisenhut (Aconitum lamarckii)

Native to European Alps, Carpathia and Northern Asia, about 100 cm tall, with thin or somewhat lax stems and bright yellow flowers from early to late summer

  • Wolfsbane, Wolfseisenhut (Aconitum lycoctonum)

Native to Europe, with yellow or white flowers, 70-120 cm tall, thinner stems and brighter foliage, two subspecies exist:
1. Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. lycoctonum
2. Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia, also called Fuchseisenhut in German

References and further reading:

Gartenratgeber +  Wildstaudenzauber + ‘Newry Blue’ Monkshood at Phagat’s Garden + Aconite Drug Information + Aconite in Plants of Greek Myth + Aconite in The Natural History of Pliny the Elder + Aconite in Ovid’s Metamorphoses + Aconite in Homer’s Iliad + Dioscorides, De Materia Medica IV. 77, IV. 78 + Hesiod, Theogony + Eisenhut in der Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen von Christian Rätsch + Monkshood at Wildflower Finder +

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