Aconitum napellus – Monkshood

Aconitum napellus - MonkshoodFAMILY: Ranunculaceae
GENUS: Aconitum
SPECIES: Napellus
COMMON NAMES: Aconite, Napel, Blue Aconite, Blue Rocket, Monkshood, Casque-de-Jupiter (Cap of Jupiter), Goatsbane, Helm, Hex, Odins Hut, Monkshood Plant, Ra-dug-gam’dzim-pa (Tibetan), Thora Quasi Phtora Interitus (Latin, ‘doom’), Trollhat (Nordic)

Aconitum napellus is a perennial herb with divided leaves and dark blue or purple helmet-shaped flowers. The flowers are purple, a color which is very attractive to bumble-bees, the plants only pollinator. A. napellus blooms from June to August, and produces a new root each year, while the old root dies off (Ratsch 1998, 34).

Aconitum napellus Sepal

Aconitum napellus Sepal

A. napellus may be found in Europe as far north as Ireland and as far south as Italy. It grows as far east as the Himalayan mountains, and is particularly common in the Alps and in Switzerland. A. napellus may be propagated from seeds or from root cuttings. However, handling fresh root cuttings is dangerous, as the toxins contained in this plant are powerful enough affect the body when absorbed through the skin. A. napellus prefers rich, moist soils, and does best in moist, open woodland areas (Ratsch 1998, 33-34).

Propagation by root cutting is easiest, and best done in autumn. After the stem portion of the plant dies off, the root is dug up, and the smallest of the ‘daughter’ roots that have developed beside the old root is removed and replanted in December or January. Shoots will appear in about a month (Grieve n.d.)

TRADITIONAL USES: It is said that A. napellus sprung from the splattering saliva of Cerberus, the three headed guard dog of the gates of Hades, along with henbane:

“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” (Ovid 2004).

Yet another tale tells us that A. napellus plants spring from the blood of Prometheus as he is repeatedly disemboweled as part of his eternal punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans (Ratsch 1998, 34). The plant was then discovered by the goddess Hecate, who used it to poison her own father (penelope.uchicago.edu n.d.).

Cerberus and Heracles

Jar depicting Cerberus and Heracles

In the Greek tale of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, priestess of Hecate, attempts to poison Theseus, her step-ston with A. napellus, so that her own son can take the throne. Theseus survives the attack, however, and later becomes king (Herbs2000.com). A. napellus is also the plant that Athena sprinkles on Arachne when she transforms her into a spider (penelope.uchicago.edu n.d.).

A. napellus has long been considered most dangerous and poisonous plant in all of Europe. The plant is often depicted in European art as a symbol of death, suggesting a possible use as a ritual poison in the societies of ancient European peoples. Some have suggested that this plant was consumed by the German Berserkers in order to enter the much feared ferocious, mindless battle-trance state. In line with this hypothesis, the plant is strongly associated with lycanthropy, with some accounts saying that it it repels, poisons, and kills werewolves, and others stating that individuals who smell, wear, or eat it will become werewolves themselves. Some tales suggest that the Scythians used A. napellus preparations as part of rituals in order to transform into wolves (Ratsch 1998, 35).

TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: A. napellus is the most poisonous plant on the planet and must be handled with extreme care, if at all. The root and the herbage of A. napellus both contain psychoactive alkaloids. The dried herbage was almost certainly smoked in a ritual context in the past, but no information regarding dosage or safety is available. One must keep in mind that even when harvesting A. napellus, the alkaloids can enter the body through the skin and produce very unpleasant symptoms of poisoning (Roth et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 34). As little as 3-6 mg of aconitine, corresponding to just a few grams of dried or fresh plant matter, is lethal to even the healthiest of adults (Ratsch 1998, 34).

The root of A. napellus has been reported an ingredient of witches’ ointments, and was apparently added to wine for its medicinal and inebriating qualities. However, these activities must be considered extremely risky and should be avoided at all costs by modern humans (Pahlow 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 34). This is a plant energy that is best worked with subtly, without disturbing the plant in any way.

MEDICINAL USE: A. napellus has never been used directly in Western folk medicine due to its extremely high toxicity. In phototherapy, tinctures prepared from the herbage are used externally for gout, sciatica, and colds with fevers. Even these mild tinctures must not be taken internally. A homeopathic preparation of A. napellus is used to treat nervous disorders resulting from strong emotions and trauma, as well as anxiety and fever (ABC Homeopathy 2011). 

Species of Aconitum have been used in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicinal systems to treat coldness and ‘yang’ deficiency for many hundreds of years, but the plant matter must be processed in a very elaborate way to reduce toxicity for safe use. A. napellus is portrayed in Tibetan medicinal art alongside Aconitum ferox, indicating that both plants have been used in that medicinal system in some way, also following elaborate processing (Clifford 1996).

Medicine Buddha

Tibetan Medicine Buddha – blue like the A. napellus flower

TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Both the roots and herbage of A. napellus contain the alkaloid aconitine and aconitine acid. The highest concentrations of these alkaloids are found in the root, making that the most dangerous and toxic part of the plant (Bugatti et al. 1992).

Aconitum napellus depicted with roots

Aconitum napellus depicted with roots

When A. napellus plant matter comes in contact with the skin, it produces topical tingling and dissociative hallucinatory states – some reasons it may have been used in witches’ ointments (along with Belladonna, which creates a state of delirium). Horse dealers often used to feed A. napellus to their animals before market, as the plant has a strong intoxicating and stimulating effect on them, making them appear more lively and desirable for purchase (Ratsch 1998, 36).

A. napellus poisoning symptoms include numbing and burning wherever the plant matter touches the mucous membranes, tingling, twitching, and paralysis. Dizziness, nausea, and intense vomiting are also common. These symptoms are usually followed by respiratory and circulatory damage which often lead to loss of consciousness and death within less than an hour of initial consumption (Fuhner 1943 cited in Ratsch 1998, 36).

As the old herbalist Gerard says: ‘There hath beene little heretofore set down concerning the virtues of the Aconite, but much might be saide of the hurts that have come thereby” and that its power is “So forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causeth them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot moove or stirre untill the herbe be taken away’ (Grieve n.d.).

REFERENCES

“Aconite.” Herbs 2000, 2012 2002. http://www.herbs2000.com/herbs/herbs_aconite.htm.

“Aconite Poisoning.” Notae: Essays on the History and Culture of Rome. Accessed January 14, 2013. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/aconite.html.

“Aconitum Napellus – Homeopathic Remedies.” ABC Homeopathy. Web. 01 Aug. 2011. <http://abchomeopathy.com/r.php/Acon>.

Bugatti, C.M., L. Colombo, and F. Tome. “Extraction and Purification of Lipolaklaloids from Aconitum Napellus Roots and Leaves.” Planta Medica 59, no. suppl.: A696 (1992).

Clifford, T. Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry: The Diamond Healing. Motilal Banarsidass Publishing, 1996.

Grieve, M. “Aconite Herb.” A Modern Herbal. Accessed January 14, 2013. http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/a/aconi007.html.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Edited by J. Dempsey. Poetry X, 2004. http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/4817/.

Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.

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