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Monkshood its past and present medicinal uses

Updated on December 8, 2013

Aconitum napellus



Aconitum napellus known by the common name of Monkshood as had many other country titles attached to it over the years , such as Wolfs bane and Monks blood. It belongs to the family of plants known as the Ranunculaceae of the Order Ranunculales {Buttercup family}.

There are according to the Flora Europeae about nine sub-species which occur in different parts of the globe. The genus name Acontium derives from the Greek Akontion indicating a dart, because it was said to have been used by barbaric tribes to poison their arrows. Others claim the name derives from the Greek akone indicating a cliff or rocky place alluding to its habit of growing in rocky places. Alternatively the name may have derives from its supposed place of origin Aconae.

The species name napellus meaning a small turnip alludes to the shape of its roots. Although not thought to be a native to the UK there are records of it growing on the banks of the River Teme, in Herefordshire. It was introduced to the English garden around 1596 where it grows in moist shady places. Although poisonous in all of its parts it was considered an attractive garden plant because of its foliage and hooded flowers.

The plant grows wild in the alpine regions of Europe-Germany,Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Italy and France are prime examples.

Here we review the plants past association in herbal medicine and also look at the dangers posed by this toxic species. We commence the review with a description of our subject.

Aconitum septentrionale

Another species of Monkshood  Billeder of Norden's Flora { 1917-1927}
Another species of Monkshood Billeder of Norden's Flora { 1917-1927}

Description of Monkshood

The root is perennial, fleshy and of a dark colour externally and whitish within. The root is fusiform or turnip shaped which sends out numerous fibres. The stem is erect, simple, smooth and attains the height of three to four feet.

The leaves are arranged alternatively and are palmated and deeply divided into five elongated segments, wedged shaped and irregularly cut and toothed, they are furrowed on the upper surface. The lower leaves are long stalked, the upper ones are nearly stalk-less.They are dark green above but paler beneath, smooth and shining. They are very similar to those produced by the meadow buttercup Ranunculus acris.

The flowers are arranged in a long cylindrical spike at the top of the stem and they appear in june. Each flower is supported on stalk with two small bracts {bractea}. The calyx { sepals etc}, resembles a corolla {petals etc}, being of a deep violet colour. It consists of five unequal sepals the upper most arched and helmet shaped, concealing the petals, the lateral ones broad and nearly round. The lower is oblong. The two upper petals are curved and concealed beneath the helmet. The whole flower has the appearance to the closed helmet of the knights of old , or as is common name suggests to the cowl worn by monks in days gone by.

The entrance of the flower is partly blocked by the depressed stamens, which offer a climbing place for the bumble bees. The species Bombus hortorum is a species of bee that visits the flower regularly. The anthers rise successively, shed their pollen, where the underside of the bee will pick it up, then curl back out of the way. The stigmas then elongate and come into contact with the bees abdomen.

Monkshood a little history

The other alternative common name for the plant wolf'sbane derives from the plants supposedly deadly effects on the wolf. This may in turn derive from a legend that wolves, in times of scarcity, would dig up the roots and eat them, and soon after they would be found dead.

The poets fabled that the Aconitum sprang up from the foam of the monster Cerberus, when dragged to the light by Hercules. It is also mentioned by Ovid as the principle ingredient in the poisonous draught prepared by Medea for the destruction of Theseus. One record tells of the plant's toxic qualities especially that of the root. A fatal incident occurred in the year 1853, in consequence of but a small quantity having been eaten in mistake for horse radish.

Aconitum is also referred to in mythology. It was reputedly the main ingredient in the deadly draught given to the old men of Ceos, when they became to infirm to be serviceable to their country.

As a medicine, it was used by the ancients, chiefly as an anodyne, and as external applications to relieve pain in the eyes.

Aconitum pyramidal

Sammtlich Giftgewache Deutschlands 1854 Edward Winkler
Sammtlich Giftgewache Deutschlands 1854 Edward Winkler

Medicinal History and case notes.

The ancients appear to have considered this plant as the most virulent of all poisons, and, indeed, there are few products of nature in the plant world that can surpass it in venom. It is such a high poison that many of the past writers have applied the term Aconitum as synonymous with all that is deadly in the vegetable world. An example of this comes from Shakespeare----

" Thou shalt prone a shelter to thy friens,

A hoop of gold to binde thy brothers in;

That the united vessel of their blood,

Shall never leake, though it doe worke as strong

As Aconitum, or rash gunpowder "

It is especially the root and the foliage that contain the maximum amount of poison. the foliage seems to have been the product of most of the accidental poisoning. Linnaeus, in his book Flora Lapponica,{whilst on his Lapland tour}, writes " In my journey through Medelpadia { A province of Norland}, I saw a woman gathering the leaves of this Aconitum { species lycoctonon}, and on asking her for what purpose they were designed, she replied she intended using them for food. To convince her of her danger { for I thought she had mistaken them for the leaves of the species Geranium}, I implored her by everything that she held dear, not to prepare her last meal.

" But with a smile she said there was no danger. She knew the plant well, and had so often gathered it for years, as well as her neighbours, that she thought that I could not be properly acquainted with it myself. I then entered her cottage and saw her cut the leaves into pieces and boil them with a little fat so as to make a broth of which she partook, together with her husband, two children and an old woman. What was remarkable, with impunity."

He then proceeded to enquire, the reason of this apparent discrepancy and concludes by remarking that " the long continued boiling deprived the herb of its deleterious properties"

The Flora Homoepathica {1853}, orders that the expressed juice of the fresh plant to be mixed with an equal quantity of spirits of wine, and after an interval of twenty four hours, the clear liquid be poured off. One drop was to be shaken twice with 99 drops of spirits of wine, and marked with the sign {1}.This long drawn out preparation was continued to the thirtieth division, by adding one drop of the {1} dilution to 99 drops of spirits of wine, and so on until the thirtieth, was obtained.

Aconitum anthora

Sammtliche Giftgewache Deutschlands 1854 Edward Winkler
Sammtliche Giftgewache Deutschlands 1854 Edward Winkler

Poisonous effects of Aconitum and historical notes.

There is on record a story about a boy who had inadvertently eaten the foliage in the year 1844. In two hours a burning sensation occurred in his mouth, throat and stomach,which was quickly followed by swooning and death.

On inspection, the cerebral vessels were found enormously distended with a dark coloured fluid. A deep inflammatory blush extended all over the whole mucous surface of the stomach, with dark coloured patches.

Dr.Geogham had stated a case of such poisoning whilst tending to a patient. He records in his notes--" Two minutes after eating a burning heat in the mouth, throat and stomach ensued, with sensation of swelling of the face and a general feeling of numbness and creeping of the skin, along with restlessness.

"Attempts to speak were attended with unintelligible sounds only. A great muscular disability, led to the patient being unable to stand. To use her own expression, although her eyes were wide open, her sight was very dim, and surrounding objects were indistinctly. The sensibility of the body was greatly impaired. Her face and throat were almost insensible to the touch. She was very giddy but neither delirious or sleepy.

"Her body and extremities were cold, she was frequently pulling her throat about, but she knew not why. Five or six hours afterwards she began to recover. She was very lucky to have recovered at all."

Much earlier in time John Gerard { 1500's}, gives this curious account of an antidote for the poisoning. He states " It groweth on the mountains in sundry places in the Alps, where you shall find that the grass that groweth round it eaten up with cattle, but no part of the herb is touched, except by certain flies, who in such abundant measure swarm around the same, and they cover the whole plant, and which is very strange, although these flies do with great delight feed upon it, yet of them there is confected an antidote or most available medicine against the bite of the spider known as Tarantula, or any other venemous beast whatsoever, yea an excellent remedie, not only against the aconitum, but all other poysons whatever"

Aconitum ferox { Indian Aconite }

This species is regarded as one of the most poisonous species of plants in the world.
This species is regarded as one of the most poisonous species of plants in the world. | Source

A modern day case of deliberate poisoning.

Reported Wednesday the 6th of January, 2010, by the BBC news.

" A jealous woman poisoned her former lover and his new fiance with a deadly toxin mixed into their curry, in Southall, West London. Mr. Cheema { the woman's former lover} died " having suffered the onslaught of the poison that took its toll on the body". In less than an hour, he had loss the use of his arms and legs. His sight then went, and his heart began to fail with blood pressure dropping.

Experts identified the poison as Aconitum ferox, more commonly known as Indian Aconite. This species is considered to be one of, if not the most poisonous species of plants in the world. It was was commonly grown in gardens throughout Europe as a decorative species.

Other older garden varieties.

Aconitum album --{ White Wolfsbane} native to Levant { Eastern Mediterranean region} was first cultivated in England in 1793. Sometimes it attained the height of six feet, and was characterized by the tall stem, palmate foliage and white flowers. poisonous.

Aconitum cammarum--Purple Monkshood. The flowers of this species are pale blue which produce a much longer helmet and shorter raceme than the common monkshood. The stem is also much taller. They are native to Switzerland, Austria, and other nearby countries. There is also a variety with white and variegated flowers. It was first cultivated in England in 1748. Poisonous.

Aconitum uncimatum,-- American Monkshood native to Pennsylvania. The leaves are similar to those of Aconitum napellus. The flowers resemble those of 'cammarum'. It was first cultivated in England in 1770. It is highly poisonous.


As we have seen Aconitum's are highly poisonous and should never be consumed in any way shape or form, especially not as a home made preparation.

However, many species have a charm and beauty which are alluring to gardeners. They are handsome flowers that enhance the garden border and well worth growing for that purpose. While admiring the plants one should always be aware of their darker dangerous properties.

Aconitum variegatum

Flora Conspicua 1826 -Richard Morris and William Clark
Flora Conspicua 1826 -Richard Morris and William Clark


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, digitalis has more to do with the regulatory affect on the heart and this species is much more potent on the body in general. Thank you for visiting it is appreciated as always. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Sounds almost like a digitalis derivative. Very good material.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika , thank you for your usual kind comments which are really appreciated. Thank you also for the Vote up, useful and interesting. Best wishes to you.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika , thank you for your usual kind comments which are really appreciated. Thank you also for the Vote up, useful and interesting. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Monkshood its past and present medicinal uses is a well-informed hub. A different plant with different uses. You always have something new to write about great knowledge and is worth sharing with us Hubbers. Voted up, useful, interesting.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      You are right about its toxicity to man and beast. Thank you for your visit and for leaving your comments, they are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      4 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Be careful to keep them out of reach of puppies and cats who may be tempted to eat them. Of all the plant nurseries I have visited I have never seen a warning sign how poisonous this plant is to man and beast


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