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Aconitum / Monkshood




Aconitum (A-co-ní-tum), known as aconite, monkshood, or wolfsbane, is a genus of flowering plant belonging to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). There are over 250species of Aconitum. These herbaceous perennial plants are chiefly natives of the mountainous parts of the northern hemisphere, growing in moisture retentive but well draining soils on mountain meadows. Their dark green leaves lack stipules. They are palmate or deeply palmately lobed with 5–7 segments. Each segment again is 3-lobed with coarse sharp teeth. The leaves have a spiral or alternate arrangement. The flowers have a large upper petal resembling a hood, hence the common name.
The most common plant in this genus, Aconitum napellus (the Common Monkshood) was considered to be of therapeutic and toxicological importance. Its roots have occasionally been mistaken for horseradish. It has a short underground stem, from which dark-colored tapering roots descend. The crown or upper portion of the root gives rise to new plants. When touched to one’s lip, the juice of the aconite root produces a feeling of numbness and tingling. The roots of Aconitum ferox supply the Indian (Nepal) poison called bikh, bish, or nabee. It contains large quantities of the alkaloid pseudaconitine, which is a deadly poison. Aconitum palmatum yields another of the bikh poisons. The root of Aconitum luridum, of the Himalaya, is said to be as virulent as that of A. ferox or A. napellus. Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. The Minaro in Ladakh use A. napellus on their arrows to hunt ibex, while the Ainus in Japan used a species of Aconitum to hunt bear. The Chinese also used Aconitum poisons both for hunting, and for warfare.
The plant is a hardy perennial, with a fleshy, spindle-shaped root, palecoloured when young, but subsequently acquiring a dark brown skin. The stem is about 3 feet high, with dark green, glossy leaves, deeply divided in palmate manner and flowers in erect clusters of a dark blue colour. The shape of the flower is specially designed to attract and utilize bee visitors, especially the humble bee. The sepals are purple – purple being specially attractive to bees – and are fancifully shaped, one of them being in the form of a hood. The petals are only represented by the two very curious nectaries within the hood, somewhat in the form of a hammer; the stamens are numerous and lie depressed in a bunch at the mouth of the flower. They are pendulous at first, but rise in succession and place their anthers forward in such a way that a bee visiting the flower for nectar is dusted with the pollen, which he then carries to the next flower he visits and thereby fertilizes the undeveloped fruits, which are in a tuft in the centre of the stamens, each carpel containing a single seed.
Monkshoods make a good show when you need vertical spires with blue flowers in summer and autumn. The heights range from 1m (like the blue and white A. x cammarum ‘Bicolor’) to just 60cm. This medium-high, extremely popular form has white-eyed blue flowers and very attractive blue-grey foliage. In open, exposed areas the taller kinds need to be tied to stakes to keep them upright after being battered by strong winds.
Aconite prefers a soil slightly retentive of moisture, such as a moist loam, and flourishes best in shade. It would probably grow luxuriantly in a moist, open wood, and would yield returns with little further trouble than weeding, digging up and drying. In preparing beds for growing Aconite, the soil should be well dug and pulverized by early winter frosts – the digging in of rotten leaves or stable manure is advantageous.
The plant requires full sun or light shade. This plant will live in the shade but the flowers get quite floppy with reduced sunlight. They perform best with a minimum of six hours of full sun every day.
The plant can be raised from seed, sown 1/2 inch deep in a cold frame in March, or in a warm position outside in April, but great care must be exercised that the right kind is obtained, as there are many varieties of Aconite- about twenty-four have been distinguished – and they have not all the same active medicinal properties. It takes two or three years to flower from seed.
Propagation is usually by division of roots in the autumn. The underground portion of the plants are dug up after the stem has died down, and the smaller of the ‘daughter’ roots that have developed at the side of the old roots are selected for replanting in December or January to form new stock, the young roots being planted about a foot apart each way. The young shoots appear above ground in February. Although the plants are perennial, each distinct root lasts only one year, the plant being continued by ‘daughter’ roots.
Beware: It is extremely toxic and poisonous, so florists and consumers should wash their hands thoroughly after handling. When even attempting to grow Monkshood you should handle the seeds and the seedlings, and even the plants with protective gloves (surgical gloves), and wash your hands when finished.





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