Monkshood – the spookiest of all?

And now for this week’s installment in our continuing series on spooky plants (if you’ve missed any of our earlier blogs, check out the list below!). Aconitum napellus, or Monkshood, is a supreme example in the spooky plant category. It is known among some as the King or Queen of poisons. Much of genus Aconitum, 200 to 300 species strong, spread across the northern hemisphere from Europe to China, and they are chemically active, if you know what I mean.

Aconitum napellus is a tuberous perennial growing between a foot to four feet tall. It, like Baptisia, can take time establishing itself, especially if it is stressed by heat. One of its great ornamental qualities is its blue to violet raceme flowers in mid-summer. Monkshood derives its name from the “cowl” flower shape, which is similar to a monk’s hood. 

Do not let the fact that this genus is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) fool you. ALL parts of the plant, from root to seed but especially the tuber, are poisonous if handled improperly. Poisoning can occur from skin contact or if ingested. Monkshood contains a number of cardioactive alkaloids, which can cause all kinds of nasty gastrointestinal and cardiac side effects. There are also some nervous system components leading to hallucinations for some. Reportedly, Viking berserkers may have enhanced their hypnotic blood sprees with some of this good stuff, thinking it turned them into wolves or other predatory mammals. 

Beyond the Viking hordes, Monkshood has enjoyed a long rich history in European folklore and myth. The species was used for poisoning arrows and baiting wolves (hence the alternate name of wolfsbane), or as a nice murder weapon. I first encountered the plant in the pages of Ellis Peter’s mystery novel by the same name. The plant features in several Greek legends, and it was described by both Theophrastus and Dioscorides, possibly the two most important botanists of the ancient world. The history and use of Monkshood is rich and deep and worth further reading, but suffice it to say, its reputation is well earned as one of the great spooky and nasty plants ever to inhabit the garden border.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

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