Species: Aconitum napellus, Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia, Aconitum carmichaelii syn. arendsii, Aconitum lamarckii, Aconitum ferox, Aconitum anthora
The most poisonous plant genus of Europe consists of at least a hundred different species and has an array of legends and folklore attributed to it. Not by chance it is called a ‘Queen of Poisons’ or ‘Plant Arsenic’ in likeness to arsenic, the ‘King of Poisons’.
A distinction sometimes found concerns the names Monkshood and Wolfsbane. Some argue the true Wolfsbane would be the white or yellow-flowered species Aconitum lycoctonum whereas the blue flowering Monkshood, Aconitum napellus is probably the better known of the two species, frequently found in medieval monastery gardens. (It should be noted though white flowering variants exist also of the latter.) The two species contain different poisons, which are however similar (and both lethal) in effect.
Mythology and history: The Greek word akónitos is composed of ak = pointed and kônos = cone, an akon being a dart or javelin, which is perhaps a reference to the use as arrow poison. Theophrastus suggests the name derived from the town of Aconæ (today assumed to be near Karadeniz Ereğli in Turkey). It may also have been named after Mount Akonitos in Pontus (Asia Minor), where the plant is said to have grown from the spittle of Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hades, when the folk hero Heracles drew up the beast from its infernal abode. Homer (800 bc) gives the first account of this myth in the Illiad. Eight centuries later Ovid embellishes the story in Metamorphoses VII where he describes the plant’s origin and tells of Scythian sorceress Medea who attempted to poison Theseus with aconite. Aconite features also in Metamorphoses VI: Athena sprinkles Arachne with aconite upon which she is transformed into a spider (VI, 129ff.). Ovid also writes aconite was called ‘flintwort’ or ‘stoneherb’ by farmers of the region, because the plant grew on barren rocks. Pliny the Elder too assumes the name aconite was derived from aeonæ = rocks, on which the plant was found to grow. NB: Cerberus is first mentioned by Hesiod (800-700bc), who describes the dog as fifty-headed and being the offspring of Typhon, birther of storm winds and father all monsters, the largest and most deadly of all creatures and she-viper Echidna, mother of all monsters. Their ‘poisonous’ blood flows also in the veins of Cerberus and the plant that rose from his saliva.
Aconite is also called hecateis after the goddess Hecate, to whom the herb is sacred. Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, is associated with shape-shifting, e.g. when called upon as Lycania. In connection with witchcraft aconite is also thought to have been used by Thessalonian witches in flying ointments and by medieval witches, who mixed the seeds into hallucinogenic ointments. Amongst Germanic tribes it is reported to have been used by the Berserkers when they transformed into ‘werewolves’. Aconite is said to cause a sensation on the skin of wearing a fur-coat or feathers and may induce hallucinations of transformating into different kinds of animals. Indo-European culture holds the name Luppewurz (old German luppi = deathly juice/poison/spell), similar to Latin lupus = wolf. The Greek byname lycoctonum means wolf-killer, possibly referring to the plant’s use in poisoned wolf baits, hence also the English name Wolfsbane.
Dioscurides distinguishes two species: Akoniton lycoctonum is noted to be an anodyne in eye medications, and was used to “kill panthers, wolves, and other wild beasts” (see also Virgil), and Aconitum napellus (monkshood), used to “kill wolves”. (De Materia Medica IV. 77, IV. 78) He also points out the name napellus comes from Latin napus = a small turnip.
Pliny the Elder refers to the herb as ‘plant arsenic‘, and dedicates chapter 2 of his Natural History to the “most prompt of all poisons”, which he claims was also an antidote to scorpion poison. In the same context he mentions the White Hellebore (Veratrum album) to be an antagonist to aconite. He goes on to describe the use of aconite and hellebore as pardalianches = pard-strangle.
Being one of the most poisonous herbs native you Europe aconite has also a long history in poison murder. Pliny mentions Calpurnius Bestia, who killed his wifes in sleep by touching their genitalia with his finger, which were smeared with aconite root extracts. According to Pliny aconite was thus also called thelyphonon = female-bane or ‘woman killer’. Aconite brought in contact with the mucuouse menbranes of female genitalia would cause instant death! He assumes yet another name, scorpio, was based on the curved shape of the root resembling a scorpion’s tail. Further according to new findings the famous Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra, pressed for time, may have killed herself with the help of a poisonous coctail containing Aconite, Poison Hemlock and Opium Poppy rather than the bite of a cobra, which would have taken significantly longer.
In Germanic folklore aconite was sacred to Thor, the god of thunderstorms and lightning, as the name Thor’s Hat indicates. In Germany the plant is commonly known as Eisenhut and Sturmhut = helmet, as well as Mönchshut = monk’s hood. Less known German names are Venuskutschen or Venuswagen = venus wagon; quite a contrast, suggesting female and aphrodisiac attributes! However, the names are often simply based on various interpretations of the shape of the flowers. More related to the plant’s poisonous effects are the German names Würgling, indicating death through asphyxiation, and Ziegentod, referring to the accidental deaths of goats that ate of the plant.
Aconite has long been used as an arrow poison in hunting and war. Arrow heads were dressed with aconite as well as the shafts, so that an enemy who drew an arrow from the body of a wounded comrade would be poisoned too. In India aconite was mixed with other poisons and applied to arrowheads, so that the targets would rave mad and poison more people by biting them. Aconite’s use as an early biological war weapon extends also to poisoning the enemy’s water and food resources, e.g. the Romans used it as such. Likewise Roman Emperor Claudius died of Aconite poisoning in year 54.
In India aconite is sacred to Shiva, the God of All Poisons. According to legend the essence of all poisons spread from the whirling motion of the Ur-ocean or ocean of milk samudramathana, when it produced the holy cow. The gods were frightened and ran to Kailash, where Shiva sat meditating, and asked him for help. Shiva took the poison in his hands and drank it. His wife Parvati feared for her husband and choked his throat so that the poison eventually would get stuck and upon which his throat turned blue. Because of this Shiva is also called Nilakantha = blue throat. Through his deed Shiva saved all beings from becoming poisoned. Only a tiny bit of the poison had dripped from his hand which until today flows in the veins of the blue aconite and other poisonous plants. Another version of the story tells of Shiva having turned blue from consuming all the poisons in the world. In his likeness Aghoris consume poisonous Shiva-associated plants (e.g. Aconitum ferox, Cannabis indica, Datura metel, Papaver somniferum) and other poisons (cobra venom, quicksilver, arsenic) in order to experience the divine consciousness of Shiva. Advanced practitioners consume a smoking blend of Cannabis indica and Aconitum ferox, which is called vatsanabha or bish root. The Saradatilaka Tantra describes Shiva in His Nilakantha aspect: “He shines like a myriad of rising suns, he wears a shining crescent moon in his long entangled hair. His four arms are adorned with snakes. He has five heads, each with three eyes, he wears a tiger skin and is armed with a trishula.”
Aconite appears in Christian iconography as a symbol of death and it is the symbol for toxicity in European nature. It was a classic in Christian medieval monastery gardens and there exists a fictional account of its use by Christian monks in Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Cardinal Napellus. The story is about a brotherhood named the ‘Blue Brothers’, who believed that Cardinal Napellus, the founder of their order, had transformed into the very first Aconite plant and all further aconite plants had derived from him. Aconitum napellus is featured on the order’s coat of arms and the monastery garden is a huge aconite field, planted by neophytes after admission into the order. In the story these neophytes sprinkle the plants with the blood that flows from their scourging wounds. “The symbolism of this ritual of blood baptism lies within the planting of the human soul inside the Garden of Eden and fertilizing the plant’s growth with the blood of men’s desires.” The members of the order are described to be using the plant for inducing hallucinations or gaining higher consciousness:
“When the flowers vanished, we would collect the poisonous seeds, which resemble small human hearts and according to the secret doctrine of the order depict the seed of faith, of which is written that it lends the power to move mountains, and they would eat from it. As the dreadful poison transforms the heart and brings men to the liminal point betwixt death and life, so the essence of faith was meant to transform our blood – to become a miraculous force within the hours of deathly agony and ecstasy.” – Meyrink 1984
Aconite in the garden, different species:
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)
Native to Western and Central Europe, about 120 cm tall, with solid stems and dark green foliage, the helmet-shaped flowers are a deep blue or purple
Chinese Aconite, Herbst-Eisenhut (Aconitum carmichaelii)
Native to East Asia, up to 2 m or taller, lush, bright violet-blue flowers occure in October/beginning of autumn, also known as Fu Zi, traditionally used in TCM
Indian Aconite, Bish (Aconitum ferox)
Native to India, particularly West-Bengale (Darjeeling Hills), flowers of varying color from blue-purple to pale white, yellow or pink; contains large amounts of Pseudoaconitine (nepaline), considered the most poisonous plant in the world
Wolfsbane, Wolfseisenhut (Aconitum lycoctonum)
Native to Europe, with yellow or white flowers, 70-120 cm tall, thinner stems and brighter foliage, two subspecies exist:
1. Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. lycoctonum
2. Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia, also called Fuchseisenhut in German
Yellow or Northern Wolfsbane, Lamarck’s Aconite, Pyrenäen-Eisenhut (Aconitum lamarckii)
Native to European Alps, Carpathia and Northern Asia, about 100 cm tall, with thin or somewhat lax stems and bright yellow flowers from early to late summer
Yellow Monkshood, Healing Wolfsbane, Gift-Eisenhut (Aconitum anthora)
Native to the Alps, Spain, the Pyrenees, Croatia and Hungary, up to 150 cm tall, with bright yellow flowerheads, blue-green stems and pinnatipartite leaves, considered an antidote and a counter-poison to Thora buttercup (Ranunculus thora)
Columbian Monkshood, Western Monkshood (Aconitum columbianum)
Native to Northamerica, with blue flowers
Medicinal & Toxicological:
Poisoning: Aconite poisoning is said to cause a feeling of wearing a fur or a feather coat. Smelling on the flowers is irritating to the nasal mucosa, causing them to swell up. The herb in full flower is reported to emit fumes that cause temporary loss of sight. If ingested aconite produces an acrid bitter taste. It is poisonous to goats and swine, but is said to have stimulating effects on horses. Because it makes a horse fiery horse traders would feed their horses aconite prior to offering them for sale.
Touching the leaves or root have been reported to cause symptoms of poisoning. Aconite brought in contact with an open wound on the finger is reported to have caused pain in the whole arm and may effect the entire cardiovascular and respiratory system.
Acute aconitine poisoning causes a tickling and burning sensation followed by paralisation of the tongue and mouth and disabled speach. It may also cause a hallucination of ants crawling all over the fingers, hands and feet, followed by uncontrolled spasms and paralysation of the face muscles and a cold feeling, as if ice water would run through the veins, since aconitin stimulates the body’s low temperature receptors. These symptoms are followed by a decrease of all receptive functions, paralysation of arms and legs, dyspnoe, seeing green, vertigo, ear whistling, trigeminus distress, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and incontinence. Increasing dyspnoe and cardial dysfunctions may ultimately result in death through heart failure and or respiratory failure. Depending on the dose death may set in as fast as within an hour. Aconite does not effect the cerebral functions. The patient may fall into a coma only during the very last stage or remains clear of consciousness until the last second, as in strychnine poisoning.
Treatment is mainly supportive. All patients require close monitoring of blood pressure and cardiac rhythm. The stomach is emptied by tube or a non-depressant emetic. Gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal must happen within 1 hour after ingestion. The major physiological antidote is atropine, which is used to treat the bradycardia. Other drugs used for ventricular arrhythmia include lidocaine, amiodarone, bretylium, flecainide, procainamide and mexiletine. Cardiopulmonary bypass is indicated if the symptoms are refractory to treatment with these drugs. Successful use of charcoal hemoperfusion has been claimed in patients with severe aconite poisoning.
Historical antidotes are atropine and digitalis or strophanthin, injected subcutaneously in maximal dose. Alcohol, strychnine, and warmth have also been employed in the past, but are of course overcome today.
Medicinal Uses: In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Aconitum carmichaelii, Fu Zi, is used to treat “coldness”, general debility, and “Yang deficiency”. Used are the root (Tubera Aconiti, Radix Aconiti, Aconiti tuber) and herb (Herba Aconiti, Aconiti herba).
Toxic Dose: 0,2 g cause symptoms of poisoning, 2 mg are said to be lethal. The dried herb is tenable for one year. One report cites skin-contact with the leaves picked with barren hands caused tickling, numbness and effects on the circulatory system. Indian Aghoris smoke the herb in tantric rituals. There are no reports about dose.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, whereby the highest concentration of poison is contained in the root and seeds.
Other: According to Christian Rätsch the nectar of the flowers may produce a psychoactive honey.
- Aconitum spp. Information
- Pliny the Elder, the Natural History, Book XXVII, 2.2.
- Dioscorides, De Materia Medica IV. 77, IV. 78
- Hesiod, Theogony
- Ovid, Metamophoses VII
- Homer, Illiad 8
- Plants of Greec Myth
- Aconite Poisoning
- Aconite in the Encyclopedia Britannica
- Christian Rätsch, Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen
- Gustav Meyrink, Le Cardinal Napellus
- Wikipedia English, Wikipedia German
- Paghat’s Garden
Photos and art: Wiebke Rost