Friday, November 11, 2011

Aconitum - A Plant with a Dark Side

“Even those who are pure of heart, and say their prayers at night, can become a wolf, when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” 

You might remember hearing that popular rhyme while watching the old werewolf movie “The Wolfman”.  Wolfsbane, also known as monkshood, is a member of the Aconitum genus of over 250 plants.  Aconitum species are popular and attractive ornamental perennials that enjoy shady moist garden sites, but beware, they are also considered some of the deadliest plants in the world.

The myths and fear surrounding Aconitum are based on real-life danger.  Every part of the plant is poisonous especially the leaves, roots and seeds. The principal alkaloids are aconite and aconitine.  Aconitine is thought to be the main toxin causing severe gastrointestinal upset, followed by cardiac symptoms and eventually death if enough has been taken in. 

Got a problem with werewolves?  Hold the flower of the monkshood under the chin of someone you suspect and if you see a yellow-tinged shadow then you’ve got your wolf. The common name wolfsbane owed to its use as a real wolf extermination tool for farmers in the past.  It was used historically for hunting on spears and arrows (smeared onto the tips) or as a poison during ancient Greek and Roman times to eliminate enemies and criminals, or even one’s wife. 

Aconitum has tall leafy stems growing to about 1 foot and flowers resembling larkspur.  The flowers are in dense racemes, blue, purple, white, pink or yellow in color and a distinctive helmet-shaped hood. Leaves are palmate or deeply palmately lobed into 5-7 segments. Aconitum napellus is one of the more commonly grown garden species.  It has showy blue flowers on spike-like inflorescences. Like other species in the genus it too is toxic, producing mainly cardiac conditions, large doses (which seem to be specific to each individual) killing the victim in 2-6 hours. This plant has a very bitter taste so it is very rarely accidentally eaten, most accidental poisonings come from the absorption of the plant via the skin or open wounds. Aconitine toxin is easily absorbed through the skin so wearing gloves while handling this plant is a necessity. 

One of the more interesting stories I read about this plant was a murder in 1881 using aconite and aconitine. George Henry Lamson was an American doctor who became addicted to morphia and got into financial difficulties. In an attempt to secure his part of the family inheritance, he gave his brother-in-law some Dundee cake and a pill capsule containing the poisons.  Dr. Lamson was found guilty when the pill batch was later tested. He had learned about aconite from a professor in his early college days.  The professor thought that the poison could not be detected but forensic science had greatly improved by time Dr. Lamson conducted the murder and he was found guilty and hanged.  He left another unsolved murder in his wake of another brother-in-law whose death was suspected but never formally linked to him.  

The most recent criminal case was the conviction of the murderer Lakhvir Kaur Singh, also known as the “Curry Killer” in 2010 in London.  Singh laced her former lover’s and his bride-to-be’s curry with Indian Aconite.  She had made a special trip to India to purchase the powder. Her ex-lover died a horribly agonizing death after consuming the food. 

Using monkshood or any of your locally available Aconitum plants can add a bit of thrill to your garden and a great conversation piece. If you believe in some of the old myths that wolfsbane repels werewolves, it might also be smart to keep it handy for the next full moon. 

photos courtesy of and