Synonyms: Aconite, Blue Rocket, Friar's Cap, Auld Wife's Huid,Helmet-flower, Mousebane, Wolfbane, Wolf's Bane, Wolfsbane
Scientific Name: Aconitum napellus L.
Family: N.O. Ranunculaceae (Crowfoot family)
The protected plant Monkshood likes moisture and light and a rich soil. In the mountains of central Europe, as far north as Sweden and Norway, in Asia (Siberia, Himalayas) and North America it is found particularly on moist, alpine meadows or pastures where it bathes its feet in cool water while its head captures the scorching heat.
Aconitine and other alkaloids. Caution: Monkshood is one of the most poisonous plants occurring in this part of the world. It should therefore never be used in concentrated form without medical advice. Children must be warned against it. Poisoning is reported to have been caused simply by a child holding a tuber in its moist hand for a while!
So beautiful and yet so poisonous! Anyone with children will ban this most impressive member of the crowfoot family from the garden and grieve after it. The deep blue, helmet-shaped flowers are arranged in long terminal spikes on stems about 4 feet high, their radiance visible from afar from June to September. The names Friar's Cap, Monkshood and Helmet-flower derive from the bizarre shape of these large flowers which only reach their impressive size through the helmet-shaped hood formed by the transformed sepals. Concealed beneath this hood are the actual petals which are quite small and unobtrusive. Only the large bumble bees are able to find their way into these spacious flowers from below. Nectar thieves simply bite into them from the outside. The large, filigree, divided leaves are no less beautiful. The root is turnip-like and forms a new tuber in the course of the year while the one from the previous year dies off in the winter.
In potentized form Monkshood acts on almost the entire organism via the nervous system. Its main effect is alleviation of pain in neuralgia, sciatica and gout. It also lowers fever and helps relieve and prevent colds (particularly head colds and bronchial catarrh). In homeopathy Monkshood is also used for certain heart conditions. It was used only hesitantly as a household remedy, no doubt because of its extreme toxicity. Pliny only reported its use for eye conditions. It was not until after the Middle Ages that it also came to be used for the treatment of insomnia and inflammatory disorders of the digestive tract.
It must be repeated that Monkshood should never be prepared in concentrated form for self-medication. It is extremely toxic and ingestion of even small doses can be fatal! Only in the hands of a doctor is it a highly potent and useful drug.
Symptoms of poisoning
Only a few minutes after ingestion of parts of the plant there is a burning sensation in the mouth and tingling over the whole body. This is accompanied by sweating, followed by shivering and an intense feeling of cold. In addition there is nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and marked salivation. Finally the limbs become numb, breathing becomes shallow and slow. Collapse and death can occur after only 20 minutes!
If poisoning is suspected, a doctor or hospital should be contacted immediately. Professional advice can be obtained free of charge from one of the various poison control centers which can be contacted 24 hours a day. On the website of the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety you will find a list of poisons informations centres in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The scientific name Aconitum was used in the ancient world by poets such as Ovid as collective name for strong poisons. The term napellus comes from the Latin nápus = turnip, alluding to the turnip-like tuber. The name Wolfsbane presumably derives from the idea that Monkshood would kill even wolves.
Greek mythology tells us why Monkshood is so highly poisonous. It is said to be the fault of Hercules, the only person apart from Orpheus who overcame Cerberus, the watchdog of the Underworld. The dog's anger at being overwhelmed by Hercules was passed on to the plant as Cereberus brushed against it. The Greek sorceress Medea used Monkshood to take revenge on her unfaithful husband Jason by trying to poison his son Theseus with it.
In antiquity Monkshood was used mainly for its poisonous properties. Arrows, spears and swords poisoned with it were deadly weapons. It was also used for rotting away flesh. In 117 A.D. planting Monkshood in gardens was forbidden as one of the first laws against the brewing of poison. In the Middle Ages Monkshood was only recommended for killing lice. Otherwise it only attracted attention because of cases of poisoning. There are macabre reports of experiments in search of an antidote being performed, with the sanction of the Emperor and the Pope, on criminals sentenced to death.
A Russian legend relates that Lucifer hid under a Monkshood plant when he was driven from heaven. The archangel Gabriel is said to have found him there and struck the plant with a bolt of lightening, forcing Lucifer to flee.
The plant from another perspective
Majestic as it is, there is also something rigid about this plant. One might imagine that the gnomes had built themselves a place for excursions into airy regions, as though they were sitting, masked with blue helmets, on the top of the plant, refusing to allow the fire beings access to the sweet nectar of the flowers. Only the related ground bumblebees are allowed to relish in the rich sweetness. Thus the whole plant, together with the thickened root, has an earthly quality. It is therefore logical to use it as a remedy for painful inflammatory processes of the nerve-sense system, treating the pain which is accompanied by restlessness and anxiety.