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Malign Monkshood

By Audrey Stallsmith

aconitum napellus

Touch not these poisoned gifts. . .
Myriads of bluest plagues lie underneath them,
And more than aconite has dipt the silk.

John Dryden, All for Love, II, ii

Aconite's common names--monkshood, blue rocket, friar's cap, and old wive's hood--sound deceptively innocent. According to some, the plant might better be called "Devil with a Blue Dress On."

As John Gerard wrote, "Helmet-floure, or the greate Monkes-hood beareth very faire and goodly blew floures in shape like an Helmet; which are so beautifull, that a man could thinke they were of some excellent vertue, but non est semper fides habenda fronti." I would guess that Latin phrase to mean one shouldn't put too much faith in appearances!

Although I wouldn't call monkshood beautiful myself, it does have a peculiar attraction all its own. The type growing in my garden, probably aconitum carmichaelii, flourishes in the shade and blooms late--in September and October--after most other flowering plants have exhausted themselves.

Although those attributes would endear aconite to most gardeners, the blooms, usually dark blue or purple, remind me of crafty eyes peering out from under the shadow of a hood. But my prejudice may derive from the knowledge that aconite is one of the most virulent toxins known to man.

According to mythology, this pretty poison dribbled from the mouth of that hound of hell, Cerberus. The most common type, aconitum napellus, probably derives its name from akontion ("a dart") and napellus ("a little turnip"). The first name explains how certain natives delivered the plant's poison to their enemies. The second indicates the shape of the root from which they derived the toxin. The yellow-flowered variety, aconitum luteum, is known as white or wolf bane.

A sprig of monkshood, drawn across the gums, is supposed to cause tingling, then numbness. I have never been foolhardy enough to try it!

Gerard describes how "when the leaves. . .were by certaine ignorant persons served up in sallads, all that did eat thereof were presently taken with most cruell symptoms, and so died." He believed an antidote could be found in the flies that feed upon the plant.

Natives of India call their aconitum ferox "bish" or "bikh". (Ferox means "ferocious.") Strangely enough, they also apply this term to altitude sickness, once believed to be caused by the exhalations of poisonous plants.

Aconite has been used to slow the heartbeat and, externally, in liniments for neuralgia and rheumatism. Veterinarians sometimes employ it to relax an animal's muscles before surgery. But please don't try any of this at home! The fact that, in the Language of Flowers, aconite stands for misanthropy--hatred of humanity--should be warning enough.

In reality past poisonings have been caused, not by any animosity on the plant's part, but by man's ignorance or hatred for his fellow man. And, as Allen Lacy points out in The Garden in Autumn, "such a great number of ornamental plants are poisonous--daffodils and foxglove for starters--that a garden made up only of plants of assured innocence would be surpassingly dull."

Note: Aconitum napellus image is from Florae Austriacae by Nicolai Josephi Jacquin, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Library.