The natural garden plant, Aconitum Napellus commonly named Monkshood is one of the most toxic plants known to man. In Europe, the poison that was collected from Monkshood was used to kill wolves and mad dogs, hence it was also known as Wolfsbane or Dogsbane. The plant is exceedingly toxic and it needs to be instantly recognized when seen and subsequently respected or avoided.
Monkshood is a genus of over two hundred and fifty species of Aconitum that belong to the Buttercup - Ranunculaceæ family of plants. It is a very distictive plant and immediately stands out from other plants with its bright and uniquely shaped blossom.
Monkshood has actually been grown in gardens, conservatories and greenhouses for many hundreds of years and the very toxic nature of the plant has been written about as early as the sixteenth century but was known about much longer. For example, Monkshood was written about during the times of ancient Rome, over two thousand years ago.
Below is a typical blooming growth of a species of Monkshood called Aconitum Vulparia , distinguished by its bright yellow monkshood petals.
All parts of the Monkshood plant are poisonous and consequently it must be handled with care. You should always wear gloves and wash your hands after touching it, as even a mild dose of its poison can cause a serious allergic reaction that can render the 'victim' in need of medical treatment.
You don't have to take in the poison by mouth, it can be absorbed through the skin. Be it the stem, the sap, the petals or the roots, this plant is a killer if not given all due care and respect. Many people through the ages have been killed either accidentally or even on purpose by this plant. Monkshood is also the assassins plant of choice for rendering the poison of choice!
The poison in Monkshood is called aconite and is classed as an alkaloid toxin, one of the deadliest and most formidable poisonous substances known to man. The symptoms of being seriously poisoned are unpleasant burning sensations inside the mouth, chronic dizziness, headaches and vomiting.
If larger quantities of the poison are ingested then breathing will become very difficult, shortly followed by paralysis and convulsions leading to asphyxiation due to gross blood circuit failure. The victim writhes in agony, however, spasms rapidly decrease as coma takes hold leading to imminent death.
Normally the whole time period from ingesting to death depending on the quantity of toxin absorption is about an hour, its a slow and painful death similar to strychnine poisoning.
However most instances of contact from this plants foliage are just to touch the petals and this will result in irritation, slight dizziness and a little nausea, death only really happens if the plant is eaten.
In times gone by and in some instances even today, Monkshood is the poison that murderers and assassins choose to do their deadly work. For example the Roman Emperor I Claudius was assassinated by his own doctor who slipped him a fatal amount of Monkshood.
At one time the Roman Emperor, Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, commonly known as " Trajan " who was born in A.D53 actually banned the cultivation of this plant under penalty of death. It is thought that any guilty party was subsequently killed by the poison of their own plant as a dire warning to others.
Even today it is still illegal in some countries to cultivate this plant, unless the grower has some form of certification or permit. It is very easy to extract the poison from this plant, one merely crushes up the plant in a suitable amount of water. The Monkshood imbibed water then becomes the administered poison. If a Monkshood culitvator suddenly has their relatives dying by poisoning, then it would not take the authorities long to work out who the suspect could be!
Twenty-five year old Canadian Actor, Andre Noble, died on July 30th, 2004, when it was believed that he mistook Monkshood for an edible flower whilst hiking on Fair Island, Newfoundland with his aunt. He became seriously ill at her cabin near Centreville and Indian Bay and died whilst being taken to hospital.
Andre Clarence Noble 1979 - 2004
This relatively simple mistake cost him his life, this should also illustrate how careful you need to be when handling or eating any unfamiliar and wild vegetation.
It was reported in the British newspaper The Sunday Mirror that the Pakistan Cricket coach Bob Woolmer may have been poisoned to death during the 2007 Cricket World Cup. We can assume it was with aconite, derived from Monkshood. However, evidence later suggested that he died of natural causes.
I just hope that the Police forensic department and indeed medical profession know that (as far as my research has uncovered) aconite poisoning leaves no trace in the blood and the victim resembles one who has died of asphyxia. This is one of the main reasons why Monkshood is the perfect murder weapon.
Death by cyanide poisoning is also similar, in that it is very hard, if not impossible to detect in the blood after death.
If large amounts of water, say three to five pints for the average adult is drank relatively quickly after ingestion of the toxins, then recovery is possible in the early stages. People have survived and death is not a common occurrence with Monkshood poisoning, as only small amounts of the poison are usually ingested.
This plant is also not all that common and does not grow in abundance in every field that you go into for that camping trip or picnic. The plant is normally specially cultured by the keen gardener and at garden centers to be bought specifically for gardeners allotments, greenhouses or to add some color to that special landscaped area, an area where human contact with it would be difficult.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Below is an attractive rendition of Monkshood, showing off its distinctive color and shape.
Although extremely poisonous and maybe the most toxic plant in the world, Monkshood is also one of the most beautiful plants. The plant has a such a wonderful shaped blossom in that it perfectly mimics the shape of a monks hood and hence derives its name.
Below is a excellent side view of the Monkshood blossom, with dark veins giving an extra illustration of the petals texture.
It must be noted that Monkshood has also been called by other pseudonyms over time including Soldiers Helmet, Friars Cap and Old Wife's Hood. The old name it once had of Witchbane was due to old folklore that suggested that witch's coated their broomsticks with the plants toxins to enable them to fly.
MONKSHOOD IN FOCUS
Below, innocent enough looking, but to caress its tender leaves or to molest its colorful blossom could lead to death as payback. Monkshood has to be treated with the respect that it subliminally demands.
Monkshood is a perennial plant, meaning that it is present all seasons of the year. It grows to about four or five feet high, the course textured leaves don't grow outward very much from the stem of the plant but grow rather closely to it. Monkshood is quite a tall plant that grows from three to five feet tall. The foliage upon it are profoundly divided, normally into five parts and each of those parts is then divided again into three parts.
The basic and most common colors of the blossom are purple to dark blue. Monkshood although rare is can be found in woodlands and meadows The stem of the Monkshood is slender but quite strong at the same time.
The blossoms color can actually vary quite a lot from yellow, pink, white, bright violet to a deep luscious blue depending on the exact genus. Also all shades of the mentioned colors are to be found in the many varieties of Monkshood.
Monkshood can grow for between three and ten years in moist soil and can survive cold winters quite well, even at -20 Fahrenheit. The plant grows well in full sunlight, but likes some shade, so do not plant out in open spaces. Monkshood also likes to grow within shrubs and in-between other plants, very rarely do they grow out on their own.
The soil, although damp, should not be waterlogged and should have a consistency of high organic material. Plant fresh seeds early enough during the fall season to let the seeds acclimatize before the ground frost starts to set in on those cold mornings.
The seeds should be set just under the surface and then left to their own devices as Monkshood doesn't like to be disturbed when in growth and will not fair well if transplanted and pruning should be done with economy in mind.
So just plant and forget, Monkshood is a very stalwart plant and will grow easily without much fuss, just ensure that the soil is kept damp. Monkshood is also a good topic for artists to emulate as the blooms are so beautifully and extraordinarily shaped.
Below is a nice modern watercolor by Artist John Wright from Nottingham in the U.K. The bold sweeping brish strokes have captured the life and energy of the Monkshood plant in subtle yet vibrant shades of blue.
It is stressed again to always ensure that you wash your hands after handling Monkshood, if wearing gloves then you must still wash your hands as when your remove the gloves there can still be traces of toxins present. It is not advised to grow Monkshood in places where children or pets are present, if you do have children around then do not cultivate this plant.
Never touch your lips or mouth whilst handling Monkshood, easier said than done when you need to scratch that itch! So always take great care, you are after all handling something that is a potent as pure cyanide.
If you are interested in reading more about the worlds deadliest poisons and toxins, then visit my deadly poisons webpage by clicking on the poison bottle on the left. From research, I have compiled a list of the deadliest poisons on the face of the planet, whereas monkshood is easily on par with hemlock.