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Aconitum napellus     

Family: Ranunculaceae

Plant Characteristics

Zone:     Zone Maps
Native Range: Most of Europe, including Britain, east to North Western Asia and the Himalayas.
Habitat: Damp shady places and moist rich meadows in southern Wales and south-western England. It is usually found in calcareous soils.
Plant Type: Perennial
Height:    (1.5 meters)
Spread:    (0.3 meters)
Sun: Sun to part shade
Water: Medium to wet
Soil: Sandy to Clay
Soil pH: Acid to Alkaline
Soil Tolerance: Alkaline, Clay
Growth Rate:
Blooming Season: Jul - Aug
Flower Color: Purple
Foliage Color: Green

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  Commom Names
   English - Aconite
   English - Bear's Foot
   English - Blue Rocket
   English - Friar's Cap
   English - Garden Monkshood
   English - Garden Wolfsbane
   English - Helmet Flower
   English - Monkshood
   English - Queen's Fettle
   English - Soldier's Cap
   English - Turk's Cap
   English - Venus' Chariot
   French - Aconit Napel
   German - Blauer Eisenhut
   Spanish - Ac?nito Com?n
   Spanish - Matalobos
Wildlife: Flowers: Foliage:
Attracts bees
Deer resistant
Rabbit resistant
Has showy flowers
Good cut flowers
Foliage Poisonous
A herbaceous perennial plant growing to 1 m tall, with hairless stems and leaves. The leaves are rounded, 5–10 cm diameter, palmately divided into five to seven deeply lobed segments. The flowers are dark purple to bluish-purple, narrow oblong helmet-shaped, 1–2 cm tall.

Thrives in most soils and in the light shade of trees. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Prefers a moist soil in sun or semi-shade. Plants only thrive in a sunny position if the soil remains moist throughout the growing season. Prefers a calcareous soil. Tolerates a pH in the range 4.5 to 7.5. Plants take 2 - 3 years to flower when grown from seed. Grows well in open woodlands. Although the plant is a perennial, individual roots only live for one year and die after flowering. Each root produces a number of 'daughter' roots before it dies and these can be used for propagating the plant. A greedy plant, inhibiting the growth of nearby species, especially legumes. An aggregate species which is divided by some botanists into many species.

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. The seed can be stratified and sown in spring but will then be slow to germinate. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame for their first winter. Plant them out in late spring or early summer.

Division - best done in spring but it can also be done in autumn. Another report says that division is best carried out in the autumn or late winter because the plants come into growth very early in the year.

Pests and Disease:
This plant is resistant to browsing deer and rabbits. These plants are resistant, not deer and rabbit proof. When food is scarce, they will eat absolutely anything. Although they probably avoid it due to its toxic nature.

Poison Alert:
The whole plant is highly toxic, acting especially on the nerve centers. At first it stimulates the central and peripheral nervous system and then paralyzes it. Other symptoms of poisoning include a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhoea. Simple skin contact with the plant has caused numbness in some people. The root contains 90% more poison than the leaves.


Landscape Uses:
| Meadows | Naturalized Landscapes | Perennial Borders |

Edible/Culinary Uses:

Roots - some suggest the root is edible if cooked, but this should be treated with extreme caution due to the highly toxic nature of the plant.

Therapeutic Uses:
| Analgesic| Anodyne| Antirheumatic| Diaphoretic| Diuretic| Antipyretic| Homeopathy| Irritant| Sedative |

Uses: Aconite has been used since ancient times, especially as an antidote to poisoning. Since the entire plant is itself very toxic, however, any use should be under the guidance of a skilled practitioner. All parts of the plant are used medicinally. The root is the most important and this is harvested as soon as the plant dies down in the autumn and is dried before use. The other parts of the plant are less important and are used fresh, being harvested when the plant is coming into flower. The root is analgesic, anodyne, antirheumatic, diaphoretic, diuretic, irritant and sedative. Due to its poisonous nature, it is not normally used internally though it has been used in the treatment of fevers. Externally, it is applied to unbroken skin in the treatment of rheumatism, painful bruises, neuralgia etc. All parts of the plant, except the root, are harvested when the plant is in flower and used to make a homeopathic medicine. This is analgesic and sedative and is used especially in the treatment of fevers, inflammation, bronchitis, neuralgia etc.

Historical and Folklore Information:
| Flower Language |

Aconite Poisoning
But ravening tigers come not nigh, nor breed
Of savage lion, nor aconite betrays
Its hapless gatherers...
Virgil, The Georgics (II.152)
Aconitum is a poisonous genus of the buttercup family (ranunculaceae), the most familiar species of which is aconite (Aconitum napellus), also known as lycotonum ("wolfsbane") and, in the Middle Ages, as monkshood because of the shape of its upper sepal or galea. Akoniton, itself, may derive from the Greek akon for dart or javelin, the tips of which were poisoned with the substance, or from akonae, because of the rocky ground on which the plant was thought to grow. Pliny struggles with the etymology of aconitum, as well, attributing the name to "the port of Aconae, of evil repute for the poison called aconite" (VI.4) but also deriving it from the rocky crags on which the plant grows "which are called aconae, and for that reason some have given it the name of aconite, there being nothing near, not even dust, to give it nourishment" (XXVII.10). He even associates the plant with "whetstone" (akone) "because it had the same power to cause rapid death as whetstones had to give an edge to an iron blade."

In the Metamorphoses (VI.129ff), Ovid tells how Athena sprinkled aconite on Arachne, transforming her into a spider. The sorceress Medea contrived to have king Aegeus unwittingly kill his own son, the hero Theseus, by offering him a cup poisoned with aconite (VII.404ff). The herb, he says, came from the slavering mouth of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates to Hades. Dragged from the underworld by Hercules (as his twelfth labor),

"The dog struggled, twisting its head away from the daylight and the shining sun. Mad with rage, it filled the air with its triple barking, and sprinkled the green fields with flecks of white foam. These flecks are thought to have taken root and, finding nourishment in the rich and fertile soil, acquired harmful properties. Since they flourish on hard rock, the country folk call them aconites, rock-flowers."

Indeed, so deadly was this foam that it was used as part of a concoction to madden king Athamas and Ino, his new wife (IV.464ff). Pliny relates the story of Cerberus, indicating that the plant grew around Heraclea in Pontus (on the Black Sea) because that is where Hercules entered the underworld (XXVII.4). This, too, is where it is "most abundant and best" (Theophrastus, IX.16.2). Aconite is said by Diodorus Siculus (IV.45.2-3) to have been discovered by Hecate, here identified as the mother of Medea, and a goddess associated with witchcraft, who first used it to poison her father. Claudius, too, is thought to have been killed with aconite by his wife, Agrippina, in part because of the pain he is said to have felt (Suetonius, XLIV.3).

In De Materia Medica ("The Materials of Medicine"), Dioscorides describes two different plants, the first Akoniton lycoctonum (IV.77), which was used to kill panthers, wolves, and other wild beasts, and as an anodyne (pain reliever) in eye medications. In the next chapter (IV.78), he describes "the other aconitum," Aconitum napellus (monkshood), which also is toxic. Aconitum napellus is so named, says Theophrastus (IX.16.4-5), because the tuberous root of the plant was thought to resemble a small turnip (napus) and "in this root resides its deadly property" (the alkaloid aconitine). He goes on to say that, depending upon how it is compounded, the effect of the poison can be immediate or fatal in several months or even a year or two, the longer the time, the more painful the death. In general, it was deadly to any four-footed animal and "kills them the same day if the root or leaf is put on the genitals" (IX.18.2).

Women were thought to be especially vulnerable to the poison, which Nicander (fl 130 BC), in his poem Alexipharmaca (XLI), actually calls "woman-killer." Pliny contends that "It is established that of all poisons the quickest to act is aconite, and that death occurs on the same day if the genitals of a female creature are but touched by it" (XXVII.4). He goes on to say that Marcus Caelius had accused Calpurnius Bestia (or rather, his finger) of using aconite to kill his wives while they slept (the cognomen "Bestia," meaning brute or beast, is therefore understandable), presumably by applying it to the mucous membrane of the vulva, which would cause death by respiratory or heart failure.

Aconitine acts by disrupting the normal ion balance in heart muscle cells, which can cause potentially fatal arrhythmias, including ventricular tachycardia (excessively rapid heart rate), the principal cause of death. Case reports of aconite poisoning continue to appear in the medical literature and often are associated with traditional Chinese herbal medicine and the inadequate decoction of Aconitum carmichaeli.

References: The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides (1655/1933) translated by John Goodyer and edited by Robert T. Gunther; Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine (1985) by John M. Riddle; Theophrastus: Enquiry into Plants (1926) translated by Arthur Hort (Loeb Classical Library); "Aconite: A Case Study in Doctrinal Conflict and the Meaning of Scientific Medicine" (1984) by John S. Haller, Jr., Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 60, 888-904; Diodorus of Sicily (1935) translated by C. H. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library); "Clinical Features and Management of Herb-Induced Aconitine Poisoning" (2004) by C. C. Lin, T. Y. Chan, and J. F. Deng, in Annals of Emergency Medicine, 43, 574-579.

From (1/24/2007) James Grout 1997-2006 – AELIUS_STILO@YAHOO.COM

Language of Flowers

Victorian Meaning: Luster


General Plant Resources
Clapham, Tootin and Warburg. (1962). Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press
Huxley. A. (1992). The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. 1992. MacMillan Press
Chiej. R. (1984). Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. MacDonald
Triska. Dr. (1975). Hamlyn Encyclopaedia of Plants. Hamlyn
Brown. Shade Plants for Garden and Woodland.
Mills. S. Y. The Dictionary of Modern Herbalism.
Yeung. Him-Che. (1985). Handbook of Chinese Herbs and Formulas. Institute of Chinese Medicine, Los Angeles
Launert. E. (1981). Edible and Medicinal Plants. Hamlyn
F. Chittendon. (1951). RHS Dictionary of Plants plus Supplement. Oxford University Press
Bown. D. (1995). Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses. Dorling Kindersley, London.
Phillips. R. & Foy. N. (1990). Herbs Pan Books Ltd. London.
Thomas. G. S. (1990). Perennial Garden Plants J. M. Dent & Sons, London.
Grieve. (1984). A Modern Herbal. Penguin
Hatfield. A. W. (1977). How to Enjoy your Weeds. Frederick Muller Ltd
Cooper. M. and Johnson. A. (1984). Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man. HMSO
Sanders. T. W. (1926). Popular Hardy Perennials. Collingridge
Rice. G. (Editor) (1987). Growing from Seed. Volume 1. Thompson and Morgan.

Poisonous Plant Resources
Grieve. (1984). A Modern Herbal. Penguin
Chiej. R. (1984). Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. MacDonald
Launert. E. (1981). Edible and Medicinal Plants. Hamlyn
Altmann. H. (1980). Poisonous Plants and Animals. Chatto and Windus
Holtom. J. and Hylton. W. (1979). Complete Guide to Herbs. Rodale Press
Stary. F. (1983). Poisonous Plants. Hamlyn
Frohne. D. and Pfänder. J. (1984). A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants. Wolfe
Cooper. M. and Johnson. A. (1984). Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man. HMSO
Phillips. R. & Foy. N. (1990). Herbs Pan Books Ltd. London.
Thomas. G. S. (1990). Perennial Garden Plants J. M. Dent & Sons, London.

Landscaping Resources

Edible/Culinary Resources
Hedrick. U. P. (1972). Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World. Dover Publications
Kunkel. G. (1984). Plants for Human Consumption. Koeltz Scientific Books
Fern, Ken. Plants For A Future.

Therapeutic Resources
Phillips. R. & Foy. N. (1990). Herbs Pan Books Ltd. London.
Grieve. (1984). A Modern Herbal. Penguin
Chiej. R. (1984). Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants. MacDonald
Launert. E. (1981). Edible and Medicinal Plants. Hamlyn
Mills. S. Y. The Dictionary of Modern Herbalism.
Huxley. A. (1992). The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. 1992. MacMillan Press
Chevallier. A. (1996). The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Dorling Kindersley. London
Castro. M. (1990). The Complete Homeopathy Handbook. Macmillan. London.

Historical Information Resources
James Grout. (1997). Aconite Poisoning.


 *Historical Info

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