With the turning of the year, thoughts turn to darker things…
Aconite [Aconite sp.] belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and should not be confused with winter aconite Eranthis hiemalis, which is not a true aconite. It was originally native to Europe, Asia and North America, thriving in windy mountainous regions and moist pastures. Aconite can be found growing wild in damp or shady places such as alder groves, and along stream courses, ditches or in highland meadows. Aconites need a fertile moist soil, preferably in sun or partial shade. They may be propagated by division, but it is worth remembering that they do not like to be moved once established and seeds should be sown in spring where the plant is to grow.
There are more than 100 species, varying in height from 2-6 feet [60-1000 cm], all having dark green leaves which are glossy above, whitish green beneath and usually lobed. The flowers, borne in loose erect clusters in shades of blue, purple, yellow or white in high summer, are designed specifically to attract bees, especially bumble bees. The sepals, one of which is in the shape of a hood are purple, a colour bees particularly love. The petals consist of two hammer shaped nectaries within the hood. The erect stem is covered with soft down and the fleshy taproot puts out new daughter roots annually. Regardless of species, all parts contain the toxic alkaloid, aconitine in varying amounts, mainly concentrated in the tuberous roots, which are pale coloured when young, developing a dark or sometimes black skin as the root matures. Some popular species are:
A. charmichaelii. Grows to 3 feet [ 1m] and has dark green deeply divided leaves. The blue-purple flowers come out in summer.
A. lycocctonum grows to a height of 4-5 ft [1.2-1.5m] with broadly lobed leaves and fibrous roots. The white to yellow flowers appear in summer. It is called wolfsbane.
A. napellus. contains the best alkaloids. This is a well known garden species which flowers a little later. The leaves are finely cut and divided and the blue, purple, pink or white flowers have well-developed hoods and appear in summer. It is called monkshood.
A. anglicum is the wild variety, flowering in early summer.
A. wilsonii. Is a tall variety, growing to a height of 6 feet [1.8 m]. It has deeply cut leaves and blue flowers which appear during late summer/early autumn.
A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum, A. autumnale, A. variegatum, A. pyrenaicum are also cultivated.
CAUTION: The deadly poison aconitine is present in all parts of the plant. Care should be taken when handling aconites; wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. It is not advisable to plant aconites in gardens where children and pets may come into contact with them. The poison at first stimulates, causes a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhoea then paralyses the central and peripheral nervous system and finally death.
Aconite is a fatal poison, often causing death within a few minutes, and so the plant’s reputation is a dark one, associated with death, black magic and the underworld. In Anglo-Saxon it was called thung, which simply means a poisonous plant.
Throughout history aconite has been used as a method of murder. In Greek legend when the hero and Minotaur slayer Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the sorceress Medea had become his stepmother. Though his father, King Aegeus, did not recognise him she did, and knew he was the rightful heir to the throne. She grew jealous on behalf of her son Medus, and persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin. They cunningly invited him to a feast at the newly completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin and Medea prepared a cup containing aconite. As he stepped forward to take the cup, his father knew him by the sword, which hung at his belt, and the assassination was prevented.
It is said that Aristotle once foiled a plot to kill Alexander the Great by means of a woman who had saturated her lips with a lethal dose of aconite. When men became old and useless on the island of Chios they were given aconite to help them on their way. The Emperor Claudius and his son were murdered with aconite, as was Pope Adrian VI. It seems to have been a popular device for removing obstacles in the Middle Ages, when career advancement in the clergy often relied on the death of a superior.
The plant is also called ‘wolfsbane’ as it is said to have been used to poison spears and arrows employed for killing wolves. A further association with wolves comes from the fact that the Scandinavians called it ‘Tyr’s Helm’ [the small flowers look like helmets]. Fenris was the wolf-son of the trickster god Loki. The ferocious and monstrous creature grew apace until the gods were afraid he would over run the world. They decided that he must be bound, but no chain would hold him. Eventually they consulted the dwarfs who fashioned a slender thread, made with the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the breath of fish and other such impossible and rare ingredients. The gods coaxed Fenris to try the strength of the rope, saying that since he had broken all the other ropes and chains it could not possibly hold him. However, he suspected the trick and said that he would only do so if Tyr, the god of war, put his hand in his mouth while he did so. The brave Tyr agreed and the wolf was bound, but Tyr lost his hand.
Aconite is associated with the underworld for the obvious reason that it causes death. Hecate, the Greek witch goddess, is said to have created aconite from the deadly spittle scattered by Cerberus, the three headed dog who was the guardian of the underworld, when Herakles dragged him out of Tartarus [the underworld] and fought with him on the hill Aconitus in Pontica. Aconite was said to grow at Heracli in Anatolia, which was one of the gateways to the underworld. Aconite was poured as a libation to the ghosts of the men who were sacrificed when the foundations of buildings were laid. It was used in funeral incenses, planted on graves and used for both suicide and euthanasia.
Aconite was known as a witches’ plant and it was believed that it was used to poison the tips of elf bolts, the darts that witches and fairies threw at their victims. In ancient times the Thessalian witches used it in the manufacture of a flying ointment; used to anoint the skin it would cause hallucinations, visions and the sensation of flying. It appears as an ingredient in mediaeval flying ointment recipes. However, the dose of aconite needed to achieve hallucinations falls within the lethal range, and unless the practitioner was very skilled death would probably be the result, and the trip one to the underworld.
It is not known when aconite was introduced into Britain, but it appears in many early herbals. It was grown in monastery gardens and used in the infirmaries as an external oil rub for rheumatism.
The herbalist Gerard described it as venomous and deadly, though he thought it was an antidote against other poisons:
‘…so forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causes them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot move or stir until the herb be taken away’.
Ben Jonson in his tragedy Sejanus said:
‘I have heard that aconite
Being timely taken hath a healing might
Against the scorpion’s stroke.’
Christian lore associated aconite with St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury born in Glastonbury in 924 AD. He had a dream of the Britain of the future, converted to Christianity, symbolised by a huge tree whose branches were covered with monk’s cowls and which stretched all over Britain. Aconite is sometimes called ‘monkshood’ as the flowers may be seen to resemble monk’s cowls.
Aconite is no longer used in herbal medicine, but is commercially collected for the recovery of aconitine, which is used in pharmaceutical remedies for neuralgia and rheumatism and is still a much valued as a homeopathic remedy. In former times an ointment of aconite was applied externally for rheumatism. Aconitine, is odourless but has a pungent taste and should be stored in a dry place as the highly toxic alkaloids it contains are unstable and change on contact with water.
Parts used: the root
Constituents: alkaloids aconitine, benzaconine, aconine, the alkaloids aconitine, benzaconinine and aconine; starch
Actions: anodyne, diuretic, diaphoretic, diuretic, diaphoretic,
In 1805, Samuel Hahnemann published a paper on the proving of aconite which became one of the founding drugs of homeopathy. A homeopathic preparation of aconite is used for is used for patients with extreme anxiety, apprehension, with a vivid imagination and many fears, angina, palpitations, rheumatism, shock, tension, facial neuralgia, headaches, piles, and spasmodic croup.