Aconitum (//), also known as aconite, monkshood, wolf's bane, leopard's bane, mousebane, women's bane, devil's helmet, Queen of all Poisons, or blue rocket, is a genus of over 250 species of flowering plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. These herbaceous perennial plants are chiefly native to the mountainous parts of the northern hemisphere, growing in the moisture-retentive but well-draining soils of mountain meadows. Most species are extremely poisonous and must be dealt with carefully.
The name comes from the Greek ἀκόνιτον, which 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. The name may reflect that toxins extracted from the plant were historically used to kill wolves, hence the name wolf's bane. In Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how the herb comes from the slavering mouth of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hell. As the veterinary historian John Blaisdell has noted, symptoms of aconite poisoning in humans bear some passing similarity to those of rabies: frothy saliva, impaired vision, vertigo, and finally a coma. Thus, it is possible that some ancient Greeks would have believed that this poison, mythically born of Cerberus's lips, was literally the same as that to be found inside the mouth of a rabid dog.
The dark green leaves of Aconitum species 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 (alternate) arrangement. The lower leaves have long petioles.
The tall, erect stem is crowned by racemes of large blue, purple, white, yellow or pink zygomorphic flowers with numerous stamens. They are distinguishable by having one of the five petaloid sepals (the posterior one), called the galea, in the form of a cylindrical helmet; hence the English name monkshood. There are 2–10 petals. The two upper petals are large and are placed under the hood of the calyx and are supported on long stalks. They have a hollow spur at their apex, containing the nectar. The other petals are small and scale-like or non-forming. The 3–5 carpels are partially fused at the base.
Aconitum species have been recorded as food plant of the caterpillars of several moths. The Yellow Tiger Moth Arctia flavia, and the Purple-shaded Gem Euchalcia variabilis are at home on A. vulparia. The Engrailed Ectropis crepuscularia, Yellow-tail Euproctis similis, Mouse Moth Amphipyra tragopoginis, Pease Blossom Periphanes delphinii, and Mniotype bathensis, have been observed feeding on A. napellus. The Purple-lined Sallow Pyrrhia exprimens, and Blepharita amica were found eating from A. septentrionale. The Dot Moth Melanchra persicariae occurs both on A. septentrionale and A. intermedium. The Golden Plusia Polychrysia moneta is hosted by A. vulparia, A. napellus, A. septentrionale and A. intermedium. Other moths associated with Aconitum species include the Wormwood Pug Eupithecia absinthiata, Satyr Pug E. satyrata, Aterpia charpentierana and A. corticana. It is also the primary food source for the Old World bumblebee Bombus consobrinus.
The roots of Aconitum ferox supply the Nepalese 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 poisonous 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 Ainu in Japan used a species of Aconitum to hunt bear. The Chinese also used Aconitum poisons both for hunting and for warfare. Aconitum poisons were used by the Aleuts of Alaska's Aleutian Islands for hunting whales. Usually, one man in a kayak armed with a poison-tipped lance would hunt the whale, paralyzing it with the poison and causing it to drown.
Several species of Aconitum are cultivated in gardens, having either blue or yellow flowers. They thrive in garden soils, and will grow in the shade of trees. They are easily propagated by divisions of the root or by seeds; care should be taken not to leave pieces of the root where livestock might be poisoned. The hybrid cultivar A. × cammarum 'Bicolor' has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
Marked symptoms may appear almost immediately, usually not later than one hour, and "with large doses death is almost instantaneous." Death usually occurs within two to six hours in fatal poisoning (20 to 40 mL of tincture may prove fatal). The initial signs are gastrointestinal including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is followed by a sensation of burning, tingling, and numbness in the mouth and face, and of burning in the abdomen. In severe poisonings pronounced motor weakness occurs and cutaneous sensations of tingling and numbness spread to the limbs. Cardiovascular features include hypotension, sinus bradycardia, and ventricular arrhythmias. Other features may include sweating, dizziness, difficulty in breathing, headache, and confusion. The main causes of death are ventricular arrhythmias and asystole, paralysis of the heart or of the respiratory center. The only post-mortem signs are those of asphyxia.
Treatment of poisoning is mainly supportive. All patients require close monitoring of blood pressure and cardiac rhythm. Gastrointestinal decontamination with activated charcoal can be used if given within one hour of ingestion. The major physiological antidote is atropine, which is used to treat bradycardia. Other drugs used for ventricular arrhythmia include lidocaine, amiodarone, bretylium, flecainide, procainamide, and mexiletine. Cardiopulmonary bypass is used if symptoms are refractory to treatment with these drugs. Successful use of charcoal hemoperfusion has been claimed in patients with severe aconite poisoning.
Poisoning may also occur following picking the leaves without wearing gloves; the aconitine toxin is absorbed easily through the skin. In this event, there will be no gastrointestinal effects. Tingling will start at the point of absorption and extend up the arm to the shoulder, after which the heart will start to be affected. The tingling will be followed by unpleasant numbness. Treatment is similar to poisoning caused by oral ingestion.
Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin that opens tetrodotoxin sensitive sodium channels. It increases influx of sodium through these channels and delays repolarization, thus increasing excitability and promoting ventricular dysrhythmias.
In January 2009, the British 'Curry Killer' Lakhvir Singh, killed her lover Lakhvinder Cheema with a curry dish laced with Indian Aconite. On 11 February 2010 she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 23 years for the murder.
At the inquest of Nathan Greenway, a gardener at Mill Court House in Hampshire, England, who died of multiple organ failure on 7 September 2014, it was speculated that his death might have been caused by his brushing against the plant, although an open verdict was recorded. When he was first taken to hospital, doctors thought he was suffering from ebola.
Aconite has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (Hindu traditional medicine). Aconite was also described in Greek and Roman medicine by Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder, who most likely prescribed the Alpine species Aconitum lycoctonum.
Aconitum features in literature and pop culture in a number of instances:
- In Greek mythology, Medea attempted to poison Theseus with a cup of wine poisoned with wolfsbane. However Aegeus, his father, interceded when he discerned his identity.
- Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part II Act 4 Scene 4 refers to aconite, alongside rash gunpowder, working as strongly as the "venom of suggestion" to break up close relationships.
- The kyōgen (traditional Japanese comedy) play Busu (附子?, "Dried aconite root"), which is well-known and frequently taught in Japan, is centered around aconite.
- Wolfsbane is mentioned in one of the verses of the Wiccan Rede.
- The 1941 film The Wolf Man and its remake suggest people can become werewolves when Wolfsbane blooms.
- In The Vampire Diaries, wolfsbane is the counterpart of vervain, which affects vampires, to debilitate werewolves and hybrids.
- In the television show Merlin the lead character Merlin, attempts to poison Arthur with Aconite while under a spell.
- Wolfsbane is used in the 2000 Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps and its sequel as a cure for Lycanthropy. It is later revealed that it does not cure the infection, merely delaying its effects.
- Wolfsbane in the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels is a plant that can be used as an ingredient in the Wolfsbane potion, a potion werewolves use to maintain their rationality and conscience when transformed into a wolf. Additionally Severus Snape lectures Harry Potter when they first meet in the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone that "As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite."
- Livia, wife of Augustus, is credited as being a famous poisoner in BBC's I, Claudius. She discusses the merits, antidotes and uses of aconite (wolfsbane) with a professional poisoner.
- In the 1931 classic horror film, "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, reference is made in regards to wolfsbane (aconitum). Towards the end of the film, "Van Helsing holds up a sprig of wolfsbane". Van Helsing educates the nurse protecting Mina from Count Dracula to place sprigs of wolfbane around Mina's neck for protection. Furthermore, he instructs that wolfsbane is a plant that grows in central Europe. There the natives use it to protect themselves against vampires. As long as the wolfsbane is present in Mina's bedroom, she will be safe from Count Dracula. During the night, Count Dracula desires to visit Mina. He appears outside her window in the form of a flying bat. He causes the nurse to become drowsy and when she awakes from his spell, she removes the sprigs of wolfsbane placing it in a hallway chest of drawers. With the removal of the wolfsbane from Mina's room, Count Dracula mysteriously appears and transports Mina to the dungeon of the castle.
- Monkshood is the poison used by the murderer in the third of the Cadfael Chronicles, Monk's Hood by Ellis Peters, published in 1980 and set in 1138 in Shrewsbury.
- An overdose of aconite was the method in which Rudolph Bloom, father of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, committed suicide.
- Aconite is used by Juliette Minouche to poison North Vandernot in video game BeTrapped! before the events of the game, which is passed off as a heart attack.
- Wolf's bane is used as an analogy for the power of divine communion in Liber 65 1:13-16, one of Aleister Crowley's Holy Books of Thelema:
- In the MTV series Teen Wolf, wolfsbane plays a prominent, reoccurring role, although portrayed a lot less poisonous to humans.
- In the NBC series Grimm, wolfsbane is rubbed on the person's skin to prevent a Blutbad (a wolf-like Wesen, or creature that a Grimm can differentiate from normal human beings) from detecting their scent.
- In the TV series Dexter (Season 7), the character Hannah McKay uses aconite to poison some of her victims.
- In the manga and anime series, Katekyo Hitman Reborn, one of the main antagonists, Torikabuto, is named after the Japanese name for this plant.
- In the television series Midsomer Murders, season 4, episode 1 ("Garden of Death"), aconite is used as a murder weapon, mixed into fettucine with pesto to mask the taste.
- In the Australian detective series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, series 1, episode 5 ("Raisins and Almonds"), the ground root of wolfsbane is used as a murder weapon.
- In Dae Chang Geum, Choi put wolfsbane in the previous Queen's food.
- In Episode 9 of the TV Series American Horror Story: Coven, the resurrected Myrtle Snow poisons former fellow Witches council members with Monkshood laced Melonballs at a private dinner party hosted by Snow herself, Paralyzing them before gouging out their eyes (one from each) with a melon baller.
- In the last of the three alternate history novels of the Nantucket series by S. M. Stirling, "On the Oceans of Eternity", the renegade Coastguard Lieutenant turned psychopathic warlord along with most of his high command, is poisoned with aconite laced food by his own chief of internal security.
- In Wolfblood, season 1 episode 8, Shannon Kelly gives Maddy Smith a pill of aconite, wolfsbane, which makes Maddy's eyes turn yellow, her veins go black and she has an intense craving for meat.
- In Our Lady of the Flowers, the boy Culafroy eats "Napel aconite" so that the "Renaissance would take possession of the child through the mouth."
- In the 2014 season of NCIS:LA,assistant director, Owen Granger, and members of his staff are poisoned with "monkshood" by a mole within the agency.
- In the Monster Hunters International book series by Larry Correia it's used to mask one's scent from Werewolves.
- In Rizzoli and Isles Season 1 Episode 3 "Sympathy For The Devil" Maura Isles discovered a teenage boy named Matisse who was in the middle of a custody battle between his divorced parents, had been killed using Monkshood, which his stepmother had mixed into a water bottle.
Genetic analysis suggests that Aconitum as it was delineated before the 21st century is nested within Delphinium sensu lato, that also includes Aconitella, Consolida, Delphinium staphisagria, D. requini and D. pictum. Further genetic analysis has shown that the only species of the subgenus "Aconitum (Gymnaconitum)", "A. gymnandrum", is sister to the group that consists of Delphinium (Delphinium), Delphinium (Delphinastrum), and "Consolida" plus "Aconitella". In order to make Aconitum monophyletic, "A. gymnandrum" has now been reassigned to a new genus, Gymnaconitum. In order to make Delphinium monophyletic, the new genus Staphisagria was erected containing S. staphisagria, S. requini and S. pictum.
- Aconitum ajanense
- Aconitum albo-violaceum
- Aconitum altaicum
- Aconitum ambiguum
- Aconitum angusticassidatum
- Aconitum anthora (Yellow Monkshood)
- Aconitum anthoroideum
- Aconitum album
- Aconitum axilliflorum
- Aconitum baburinii
- Aconitum baicalense
- Aconitum barbatum
- Aconitum besserianum
- Aconitum biflorum
- Aconitum bucovinense
- Aconitum burnatii
- Aconitum carmichaelii (Carmichael's Monkshood)
- Aconitum charkeviczii
- Aconitum chasmanthum
- Aconitum chinense: Siebold.&Zucc. aka Aconitum carmichaelii var. truppelianum
- Aconitum cochleare
- Aconitum columbianum (Western Monkshood)
- Aconitum confertiflorum
- Aconitum consanguineum
- Aconitum coreanum
- Aconitum crassifolium
- Aconitum cymbulatum
- Aconitum czekanovskyi
- Aconitum decipiens
- Aconitum degenii (syn. A. variegatum ssp. paniculatum)
- Aconitum delphinifolium (Larkspurleaf Monkshood)
- Aconitum desoulavyi
- Aconitum ferox (Indian Aconite)
- Aconitum firmum
- Aconitum fischeri (Fischer Monkshood)
- Aconitum flerovii
- Aconitum gigas
- Aconitum gracile (synonym of A. variegatum ssp. variegatum)
- Aconitum helenae
- Aconitum hemsleyanum (Climbing Monkshood)
- Aconitum henryi (Sparks Variety Monkshood)
- Aconitum hosteanum
- Aconitum infectum: Arizona Monkshood
- Aconitum jacquinii (synonym of A. anthora)
- Aconitum jaluense
- Aconitum jenisseense
- Aconitum karafutense
- Aconitum karakolicum
- Aconitum kirinense
- Aconitum koreanum
- Aconitum krylovii
- Aconitum kunasilense
- Aconitum kurilense
- Aconitum kusnezoffii: Kusnezoff Monkshood
- Aconitum kuzenevae
- Aconitum lamarckii
- Aconitum lasiostomum
- Aconitum leucostomum
- Aconitum longiracemosum
- Aconitum lycoctonum
- Aconitum macrorhynchum
- Aconitum maximum (Kamchatka Aconite)
- Aconitum miyabei
- Aconitum moldavicum
- Aconitum montibaicalense
- Aconitum nanum
- Aconitum napellus (Monkshood; type species)
- Aconitum nasutum
- Aconitum nemorum
- Aconitum neosachalinense
- Aconitum noveboracense (Northern Blue Monkshood)
- Aconitum ochotense
- Aconitum orientale
- Aconitum paniculatum
- Aconitum paradoxum
- Aconitum pascoi
- Aconitum pavlovae
- Aconitum pilipes
- Aconitum plicatum
- Aconitum podolicum
- Aconitum productum
- Aconitum pseudokusnezowii
- Aconitum puchonroenicum
- Aconitum raddeanum
- Aconitum ranunculoides
- Aconitum reclinatum (Trailing White Monkshood)
- Aconitum rogoviczii
- Aconitum romanicum
- Aconitum rotundifolium
- Aconitum rubicundum
- Aconitum sachalinense
- Aconitum sajanense
- Aconitum saxatile
- Aconitum sczukinii
- Aconitum septentrionale
- Aconitum seravschanicum
- Aconitum sichotense
- Aconitum smirnovii
- Aconitum soongaricum
- Aconitum stoloniferum
- Aconitum stubendorffii
- Aconitum subalpinum
- Aconitum subglandulosum
- Aconitum subvillosum
- Aconitum sukaczevii
- Aconitum taigicola
- Aconitum talassicum
- Aconitum tanguticum
- Aconitum tauricum
- Aconitum turczaninowii
- Aconitum umbrosum
- Aconitum uncinatum (Southern Blue Monkshood)
- Aconitum variegatum
- Aconitum volubile
- Aconitum vulparia (Wolfsbane)
- Aconitum woroschilovii
- Aconitum × austriacum
- Aconitum × cammarum
- Aconitum × hebegynum
- Aconitum × oenipontanum (A. variegatum ssp. variegatum × ssp. paniculatum)
- Aconitum × pilosiusculum
- Aconitum × platanifolium (A. lycoctonum ssp. neapolitanum × ssp. vulparia)
- Aconitum × zahlbruckneri (A. napellus ssp. vulgare × A. variegatum ssp. variegatum)
- Jabbour, Florian; Renner, Susanne S. (2012). "A phylogeny of Delphinieae (Ranunculaceae) shows that Aconitum is nested within Delphinium and that Late Miocene transition to long life cycles in the Himalayas and Southwest China coincide with bursts in diversification". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 62: 928–942. doi:10.1016/j.ympwv.2011.12.005.
- Sunset Western Garden Book, 1995:606–607
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- Hay, R. (Consultant Editor) second edition 1978. Reader's Digest Encyclopedia of Garden Plants and Flowers. The Reader's Digest Association Limited.
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- "Poisonous plant blamed in Nfld. actor's death". CTV.ca. 2004-08-07.
- "Curry poison killer Lakhvir Singh jailed for life". BBC. 2010-02-11.
- "Gardener who died after handling poisonous Devil's Helmet plant originally feared to have Ebola". The Telegraph. 24 June 2015. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
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- p. 136, Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, tr. Bernard Frechtman, Grove Press, NYC, 1961
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- Aconitum chinense on pfaf.org
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- James Grout: Aconite Poisoning, part of the Encyclopædia Romana
- Photographs of Aconite plants
- USDA Plants entry for Aconitum
- Jepson Eflora entry for Aconitum