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.