Sunday, August 15, 2010


Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus in Botanical Gardens, Copenhagen.

Monkshoodis native to Europe and Asia, and there are over 250 species of Aconitum. It is the most poisonous plant in Europe. The Danish name Stormhat refers to the flower which reminds of a warrior's helmet. Another Danish name Venusvogn (Coach of Venus) is due to that its four sepals remind about a coach and the honeyhides are like two doves. The English name is Monkshood. Other names: Monk's Blood, Leopard's bane, Women's bane, Devil's helmet, Wolfsbane - the name Wolfsbane origins from a legend about wolves telling that they were so hungry they eat from the roots of the plant and died.

The Latin aconitum comes from the word akos meaning poison, referring to the contents of the strong nerve poison aconitin in the plant. Its roots have occasionally been mistaken for horseradish. The juice was since ancient times used as an arrow poison, and it is said that emperor Claudius in the year 54 was killed by this poison. Some scientists are of the opinion that Socrates was forced to drink the juice from monkshood and not from hemlock. While legend suggests that Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite, many historians actually believe that she committed suicide by swallowing a lethal drug cocktail made of opium, aconitum(wolfsbane) and hemlock.

Monkshood has got a long history as a poisonous plant. During the Roman period the plant was often used to get rid of criminals and enemies, but was also used in medicine. Later it was banned, and anyone growing Aconitum napellus could have been legally sentenced to death. Recently it has been used in small doses in fever disease, nerve pain and shell shock, but also more recently in murder plots. All species contain different poisonous alkaloids - the aconitin gives numbness. 2-4 g of the root is enough to kill a grown person. The dried flowers may cause sneezing. Even the pollen is poisonous to people, and there have been serious problems in Greece with honey gathered from monkshood. Poisoning may also occur following picking the leaves without wearing gloves; the aconitine toxin is absorbed easily through the skin. From practical experience, the sap oozing from eleven picked leaves will cause cardiac symptoms for a couple of hours.

When the witches had to fly, they used an ointment made by monkshood. A legend says that the giant Hercules had to fetch the dog Cerberos from the land of the dead. The raging dog's foam hit the ground and monkshood grew up. In magic the monkshood can be used to wash and clean sword and knives like an incense. Aconite was also said to make a person into a werewolf if it is worn, smelled, or eaten. They are also said to kill werewolves if they wear, smell, or eat aconite.

Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part II Act 4 Scene 4 refers to aconite, alongside rash gunpowder, working as strongly as the "venom of suggestion" to break up close relationships (Iago in Othello).In the third book of the Brother Cadfael series, Monk's Hood, the herbalist Cadfael uses aconite as an ingredient in a liniment, which is later stolen and used to poison a victim. It is occasionally referenced in other situations as well. In the British TV series Heartbeat, in the first episode of series 8 (1998), the poisonings are eventually found to be due to common monkshood root mistaken for horseradish and made into sauce in the pub. Monkshood is also mentioned in Thelema's sacred books, Liber LXV: "Wolf's bane is not so sharp as steel; yet it pierceth the body more subtly."

photo September 2008, Botanisk Have, København: grethe bachmann


Teresa Evangeline said...

Hi Grethe! This is very interesting. I enjoyed the historical and literary allusions. The plant world is fascinating. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on such a wide variety of them. The photos are always lovely, too.

Thyra said...

Hej Teresa! Thanks. Yes plants are fascinating, it is strange that a beautiful plant is so poisonous. It's good that we today know about it - but not good for people in the old times who made the first research! Have a nice day!

peter lewis said...
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