Aconitum napellus or Aconite. Also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, leopard’s bane, women’s bane, Devil’s helmet. A distinctive looking wildflower; strong and sturdy, with striking deep purple or blue, hood-like petals.
One of the deadliest plants in the garden. Associated with war and murder and hate.
Like the fanatical terrorists who have sought to maim and kill us, in London and Manchester, their poison concealed in plain sight, shrouded (the plant is named after the cowl worn by monks) and murderous, so they live amongst us.
A stately looking, herbaceous perennial plant, Aconite is a genus of over 250 species of flowering plants belonging to the Buttercup family. The roots are thick or tuberous (like parsnips) and easily divided for multiplying. The leaves have fingerlike lobes – extending tendrils of influence. They grow freely in any common garden soil.
The hood-shaped flowers, borne mostly in spikelike clusters, are usually purple or blue, sometimes yellow or white. Often planted in borders as a late summer statement plant.
But it’s good looks are totally deceptive; there is no getting away from the deadliness of this plant. All parts of monkshood are poisonous; the roots and seeds, and the flowers. Just picking the leaves could prove fatal.
Symptoms appear within minutes of a (usually ingested) poisonous dose. First a burning, tingling, and numbness in the mouth, then a burning in the abdomen. After about an hour, there is severe vomiting. The pulse and respiration steadily fail until death occurs from asphyxia. The treatment is to empty the stomach by tube or by a non-depressant emetic. Alcohol, strychnine, and warmth have been muted as antidotes, though with limited or no success.
From witchcraft and sorcery, (as medicine and spells), to deadly plots and jealous rows, (as spouse-killer and political assassinator) – murderous tales of this “Queen of Poison” litter our cultural history;
From the fictional; in Greek mythology, Hecate is said to have invented aconite, an ancient Greek goddess of witchcraft, she’s associated with crossroads, gateways, herbs and poisonous plants, the souls of the dead and necromancy. In a jealous rage Athena is said to have sprinkled aconite on Arachne, thus transforming her into a spider (Metamorphoses VI: Ovid). And in another jealousy story, Medea, attempted to poison Theseus with a cup of wine poisoned with wolf’s bane (Metamorphoses VII, Ovid). Others say it came from the slavering mouth of rabid dog Cerberes, guarding the gates of Hades. Witches used it in their ‘brews’ or, like the Thessalonian witches, in hallucinogenic flying ointments.
In popular literature authors from Shakespeare, (Henry IV Part II Act 4 Scene 4) to Robert Graves, (I, Claudius), James Joyce (Ulysses), Agatha Christie and J.K.Rowling (Harry Potter) have all used discussed the effect of, or used, aconite to finish off a character. On screen, murderous monkshood is a staple of many a horror or crime show; including Dracula, Dexter, Midsommer Murders. The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones,
But the real stories of aconite are much more chilling;
As an early biological war weapon Romans used it to poison wolves, thus is became known as wolf’s bane. Others used aconite as an arrow poison for hunting and warfare. In India, aconite was mixed with other poisons and applied to arrowheads, so that the those hit would rave mad and poison more people by biting them. The emperor Claudius was said to have been poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, by aconite, in a plate of mushrooms.
In 1881 George Henry Lamson was convicted of using aconitine for the murder of his brother-in-law, Percy John. The first reported murder using aconitine.
And in 2009, the British ‘Curry Killer’ Lakhvir Singh, killed her lover Lakhvinder Cheema with a curry dish laced with Indian Aconite.
More recently stories tell of accidental deaths; in 2004 Canadian actor Andre Clarence Noble died after mistakenly eating some leaves whilst hiking in Newfoundland. And in 2014 Nathan Greenaway, a gardener, collapsed and died of multiple organ failure might, after brushing past the plant.
Monkshood poisonings may make sensationalist headlines around the world, just like terrorist activities. But all of us, aware or not, are living with extremists (people and plants) around us. Most definitely we should avoid handling, without protection, at all times but caring awareness and kindly vigilance could save our lives. (Ostracizing, threatening, hating or ignoring the problem is likely to achieve little.)
Alternatively to eradicate aconite (fanatical terrorists), you have to remove every single one; roots, and seeds in all.
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