Thursday 30 June 2011


    Aconite; also known as Wolfsbane or Monkshood is one of the most deadly occupants of the plant kingdom. The name aconite is the English form of its Latin name Aconitum.  Mrs Grieve indicates that Aconitum originates from akontiom ‘a dart, because it was used by barbarous races to poison their arrows’, or perhaps  from akone, ‘cliff or rocky’ because the species grows in rocky glens. However it does appear that aconite requires soil that has water retaining properties. And luckily for me, is very happy in the shade.
 The name Wolfsbane is said to originate from the wolf hunting expeditions of Anglo Saxons, of whom it was said  dipped their arrowheads in the juice of the aconite, in which case   akontiom appears the more logical of the two. Its name at that time, according to Mrs Grieve was ‘thung,’ which seems to be a general name placed upon all poisonous plants by the Anglo Saxons.   Rather makes one think of how we are prone generalise with the word thing, however a ‘thing’does not usually kill..... I hope!
   The title Monkshood appears to have been donned because in the Middle Ages the flower heads were said to resemble the drooping hood of a monk’s habit, nothing to do with death wielding monks of course. It has also been suggested that it has the appearance of a helmet; not such an evocative image in my opinion. However my recent exploration of the aconite has prompted the buds to gain the appearance (in my mind) of  the Angel of Death, slowly waking from slumber; a warning of what lies in store for those foolish enough to mistake it for something friendly.
  Yet another member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceæ) the aconite as I have indicated is one of the most poisonous plants in the UK, the smallest amount is likely to kill. Although aconite is said to have been introduced into the U.K. in the distant past, it can no longer, as far as I am aware, be found in the wilds here.
  Michael Jordan states that when rubbed on the skin, ‘the juice provides a sensation of tingling and then numbness, for which reason Aconite was considered a standard ingredient of witches “flying ointment”. He also suggests that ‘When combined with other narcotic ingredients it may have given the mental sensation of levitation’. According to Donald Law there is no known antidote to the poison, and a safe dose is impossible to prescribe, what is safe for one, may kill another, and hallucinations occur prior to the heart collapsing. He adds a message to any ‘would-be warlocks’ ‘Why go to all the trouble when airline tickets are so cheap?’ (Law 1973) Missing the point I know.  Law also pushes his reader to consider the possibility that   some of the suggested enigmas produced by   the plant are the result of   an ancient form of drug addiction.
 Nicholaj de Mattos Frisovold makes a very interesting point on his book Craft of The Untamed which I would heartily recommend, he states ‘Monkshood is a frequent ingredient in flying ointments, but can be a poison capable of paralysing the lungs, so its use is not advocated. Belladonna is its antidote. This explains why most ointments using Monkshood also use Belladonna.’ (p93) interesting thought m’thinks. However it does appear that ‘Aconite causes irregular action of the heart, and Belladonna produces delirium.’ (footnote Mrs G p9)
  However many different views there are; one thing is certain, aconite is a very deadly plant and should be treated with respect and due caution. Not wanting to dwell  on its death dealing properties for too long, although I find its powers to kill rather worryingly fascinating,  it is said that ‘One-fiftieth grain of Aconite can kill a sparrow in  a few seconds; one-tenth grain a rabbit in five minutes. It is more powerful than prussic acid and acts with tremendous rapidity.’ (Mrs Grieve) She goes onto warn that ‘so acrid is the poison, that the juice applied to a wounded finger affects the whole system, not only causing pains in the limbs, but a sense of suffocation and syncope.’
 Mrs Grieve, describes the root of the aconite as ‘spindle–shaped,’ what a lovely evocative image this creates, of spinning wheels, pricking of the finger and sleeping for a thousand years (or longer) as the greatest amount of toxins are found in the roots.
  According to Robert Graves, the ‘witch-flower aconite’ sprang from the saliva of Cerberus; a ‘poison, a paralysant and febrifuge.’ Or as Mrs Grieve indicates, it is ‘the invention of Hecate from the foams of Cerberus’ According to Mrs Grieve ‘Aconite is also supposed to have been the poison that formed the cup which  Medea prepared for Theseus.’ (p9 1988 edition) (only quoting folks, please don’t stone me for that one)
 Again according to Mrs Grieve; ‘In 1524 and 1526 it is recorded that two criminals, to whom the root was given as an experiment, quickly died.’ So that’s how they tested such things, one thing is for sure; I will admire from a distance.
   It appears that the ‘older herbalists described it as venomous and deadly.’  I found no mention of it amongst Culpepper’s words of wisdom; however Mrs Grieves indicates that he suggests that ‘the herb was used in his time, but not often.’
   The suggestion that the plant can be used as a remedy against other poisons has been laid to rest in recent times and the ancient recommendations of its use as any form of remedy should be ignored. Gerard states that its powers are “So forcible that the herb was only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causeth them to be without force or strength to hurt, inasmuch that they cannot move or stirre until the herb is taken away.”  
   Mrs Grieve adds to this; ‘Field-mice are well aware of its evil nature, and in hard times, when they will attack any other plant that offers them food, they leave this severely alone.’ So it may just stop scorpions in their tracks, however I feel that if ever confronted with a scorpion, and finding aconite growing by my side, I may just chuck it at the creature, but then not hang around to examine the results.
  Linnæus it appears, to have reported that aconite proved to be fatal to cattle and goats when eaten fresh; however when dried it does no harm to horses; a peculiarity in common with the buttercups, to which the Aconites are related.’ (Mrs Grieve)
  No surprises that this plant is said to come under the dominium   of Saturn along with the other plants, which according to Agrippa are ‘deadly and dedicated to Pluto.’ So all in all, best to admire and be amazed by, but then to leave well alone.

Just a quick end note; although the winter aconite (Æranthis hyemalis)  also a member of the buttercup family, is not a true aconite.

Monday 27 June 2011


  What bright reflections of sunlight these little common marigolds are. They have been opening their buds since early May in my little patch, and if deadheaded regularly they will continue flowering all summer long. Hence its Latin title Calendula officianalis, inferring that if given the right circumstances, it can push forth flowers in every month of the calendar,
According to  A Niewe Herball of 1578
   ‘It hath pleasant bright and shining yellow flowers, which do close at the setting downe of the sunne, and do spread and open againe at the sunne rising.’(in Mrs Grieve)
 However others disagree and place a limit on opening times, from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, whatever the timing, it does appear to enjoy basking in sunlight, and I have not as yet taken the time to observe this phenomena in greater detail.
 Shakespeare included himself in the debate by indicating in the Winter’s Tale that ‘The Marigold that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun, And with him rises weeping.’
  The sun-like orange flowers appear to exude a rather sticky aromatic substance which when the petals are placed in oil, can be preserved. One of the little Collins Nature Guides Herbs and Healing Plants places its aroma as ‘rather unpleasant.’ As usual with such pronouncements, I disagree, however I am beginning to realise I may have a strange idea of the scent that delights. The same little book gives its flowering season as from ‘June-Sep’; not in my neck of the woods I hasten to add.  
 Its uses are given as ‘Antiseptic and antifungal,’ it can be taken internally to ‘stimulate the liver’, and ‘externally as a salve to promote healing on cuts, grazes and spots’, plus ‘a gargle for mouth and throat infections.’ The active ingredients are given as ‘Essential oil, saponins, bitters, carotenoids,’ and ‘flavonoids.’  It appears that the flowers have been put to an assortment of uses, as ‘Formerly its flowers were used to give cheese a yellow colour.’(Mrs Grieve) and according to Macer’s Herbal (Mrs Grieve) one only has to look upon the flowers and it will ‘draw evil humours out of the head and strengthen the eyesight.’ It certainly fills my eyes with joy and removes any sign of an ‘evil humour.’ Macer adds ‘Ye odour of ye golde is good to smelle.’ That’s good, at least someone agrees with me.  
  Culpeper places the plants unsurprisingly under the influence of the Sun and under Leo. This seems to gain the agreement of all others. Cunningham suggests its gender is masculine of the element fire. He give its powers as ‘Protection, Prophetic Dreams, Legal Matters, Physic Powers’ and adds as an end note ‘If a girl touches the petals of the marigold with her bare feet, she will understand the language of the birds.’  They are probably shouting, ‘get your great stinky feet off the flower beds, you are squashing the flowers.’ Catherine Yronwode indicates the blossoms are lucky in money matters as ‘they resemble coins.’
   Culpeper suggests that ‘the flowers either green or dried, are much used in possets, broths’ and as a ‘drink’; and  a ‘comforter of the heart and spirits’.  He also adds it can be used ‘to expel any malignant or pestilential quality which might annoy them.’ Good eh?, with marigold I can remove any ‘pestilential quality’ so as to comfort my heart and spirit. However he goes on to spoil the image by then mixing  the powdered dried flowers with ‘hog’s grease, turpentine and rosin’ then ‘applied to the breast; which ‘strengthens and succours the heart infinitely in fevers, whether pestilential or not.’ Hog’s grease or no hog’s grease, a very useful buddy to have in the plant world.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Thornapple (Datura Stramonium)

                                                                                                                                                            The Datura, Devil’s apple or Jimson weed is yet another member of the henbane family of the order of Solanceæ. There are as many as fifteen species in the genus Datura found in warmer places throughout the globe however it is the plant better known as the thornapple that I will be examining briefly here. This thornapple according to Mrs Grieve, emits ‘ a  rank, very heavy and somewhat nauseating narcotic odour. ’ (I rather like its aroma). ’The  fœtid odour arises from the leaves especially when they are bruised, but the flowers are sweet-scented, though producing stupor if their exhalations are breathed in for any length of time.’ I must say I did enjoy my dreams whilst the young plants were growing on my bedroom windowsill before finding their place outside. The white trumpet shaped flowers show themselves for most of the summer, opening in the evening they attract night flying moths with the fragrance they emit. Following the flowers there appears a large spiny egg shaped seed capsule, roughly the size of a large walnut.  These capsules, when ripe, turn brown and split into four to allow the many seeds to be dispersed.

   Mrs Grieve states that ‘In early times, the Thornapple was considered an aid to the incantation of witches,’ (she doesn’t say how) ‘and during the time of the witch and wizard mania in England, it was unlucky for anyone to grow it in his garden.’
  She also indicates that ‘It has been conjectured that’ its leaves were ‘used by the priests of Apollo at Delhi to assist them in their prophesies in the temple of the sun. ’She also indicates that the Peruvians made an ‘intoxicating beverage from the seeds which induces stupefaction and delirium if partaken of in large quantities.’
  Cunningham places this plant under the rulership of Saturn and the element water. He places its element as water, and indicates that it can be ‘used to break spells by sprinkling it around the home.’ I do suppose he means an infusion rather than sprinkling the seeds around. He also states that ‘If insomnia persists night after night, it may be cured by placing some datura leaves into each shoe and then setting the shoes under the bed, with the toes pointing toward the nearest wall.’
  Roaming over to Mexico, I thought I may add this little gem of information found in Witchcraft Medicine, Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, where it appears one may still buy a salve called pomade de toloache, said to contain toloache the Mexican datura, following this statement is  the following quote;

 ‘It is very rare that a toloache salve from pork lard and datura leaves is still made in Mexico. There are still “witches” who sell their datura pomade, because it is supposed to make men superfluous. This is the exact counterpart of the witches’ salves of the Middle Ages which were made from henbane and thorn apple. (Schenk, 1954:79)

Hmm; maybe I see a new career on the horizon. ;-)