|Monk's Hoods, Aconites|
|Toxicity and edibility:||Highly toxic (lethal) to both humans and livestock.|
Aconitum (known as aconite, monkshood, or wolfsbane) is a genus of flowering plant belonging to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). There are over 250 species of Aconitum.
All species are lethally toxic, causing death within hours when ingested.
These herbaceous perennial plants are chiefly natives of the mountainous parts of the northern hemisphere, growing in damp soils on mountain meadows. Their dark green leaves lack stipules. They are palmate or deeply palmately lobed with 5–7 segments. Each segment again is 3-lobed with coarse sharp teeth. The leaves have a spiral or alternate arrangement. The lower leaves have long petioles.
These are handsome plants, the tall, erect stem being crowned by racemes of large and eye-catching blue, purple, white, yellow or pink zygomorphic flowers with numerous stamens. They are distinguishable by having one of the five petaloid sepals (the posterior one), called the galea, in the form of a cylindrical helmet; hence the English name monkshood. There are 2–10 petals, in the form of nectaries. The two upper petals are large. They are placed under the hood of the calyx and are supported on long stalks. They have a hollow spur at their apex, containing the nectar. The other petals are small or lack completely. The 3–5 carpels are partially fused at the base.
The fruit is a follicle.
Moist, fertile, well drained soils in light to medium shade.
The most common plant in this genus, Aconitum napellus (the Common Monkshood) is of therapeutic and toxicological importance. Its roots have occasionally been mistaken for horseradish. It has a short underground stem, from which dark-colored tapering roots descend. The crown or upper portion of the root gives rise to new plants. When touched to one's lip, the juice of the aconite root produces a feeling of numbness and tingling.
The roots of Aconitum ferox supply the Indian (Nepalese) poison called bikh, bish, or nabee. It contains large quantities of the alkaloid pseudaconitine, which is a deadly poison. The root of Aconitum luridum, of the Himalaya, is said to be as virulent as that of A. ferox or A. napellus.
Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. The Minaro in Ladakh use A. napellus on their arrows to hunt ibex, while the Ainus in Japan used a species of Aconitum to hunt bear. The Chinese also used Aconitum poisons both for hunting, and for warfare.
Many species of Aconitum are cultivated in gardens, having either blue or yellow flowers. Aconitum lycoctonum (Alpine wolfsbane), is a yellow-flowered species common in the Alps of Switzerland. As garden plants the aconites are very ornamental, hardy perennial plants. They thrive well in any ordinary garden soil, and will grow beneath the shade of trees. They are easily propagated by divisions of the root or by seeds; care should be taken not to leave pieces of the root where livestock might eat them, owing to their poisonous character.
Aconite has been ascribed with supernatural powers relating to werewolves and other lycanthropes, either to repel them, relating to aconite's use in poisoning wolves and other animals, or in some way induce their lycanthropic condition, as aconite was often an important ingredient in witches' magic ointments. In folklore, 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.
Aconite have also been known under names such as wolfsbane, leopard's bane, women's bane, Devil's helmet or blue rocket.
Pests and diseases
- Peissel, Michel. 1984. The Ants’ Gold. The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas. London, Harvill Press, pp. 99-100.
- Sung, Ying-hsing. T’ien kung k’ai wu. Sung Ying-hsing. 1637. Published as Chinese Technology in the seventeenth century. Translated and annotated by E-tu Zen Sun and Shiou-chuan Sun. 1996. Mineola. New York. Dover Publications, p. 267.
- Chavannes, Édouard. “Trois Généraux Chinois de la dynastie des Han Orientaux. Pan Tch’ao (32-102 p.C.); – son fils Pan Yong; – Leang K’in (112 p.C.). Chapitre LXXVII du Heou Han chou.”. 1906. T’oung pao 7, pp. 226-227.