Herb of the day
—Synonyms—Monkshood. Blue Rocket. Friar’s Cap. Auld Wife’s Huid.Cuckoo’s cap.Aconite.Jacobs Chariot.
—Part Used—The whole plant.
—Habitat—Lower mountain slopes of North portion of Eastern Hemisphere. From Himalayas through Europe to Great Britain.
Aconite is now found wild in a few parts of England, mainly in the western counties and also in South Wales, but can hardly be considered truly indigenous. It was very early introduced into England, being mentioned in all the English vocabularies of plants from the tenth century downwards, and in Early English medical recipes.
—Description—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.
In the Anglo-Saxon vocabularies it is called thung, which seems to have been a general name for any very poisonous plant. It was then called Aconite (the English form of its Greek and Latin name), later Wolf’s Bane, the direct translation of the Greek Iycotonum, derived from the idea that arrows tipped with the juice, or baits anointed with it, would kill wolves - the species mentioned by Dioscorides seems to have been Aconitum lycotonum. In the Middle Ages it became Monkshood and Helmet-flower, from the curious shape of the upper sepal overtopping the rest of the flower. This was the ordinary name in Shakespeare’s days.
The generic name is said to have been derived from , a dart, because it was used by barbarous races to poison their arrows, or from akone, cliffy or rocky, because the species grow in rocky glens. Theophrastus, like Pliny, derived the name from Aconae, the supposed place of its origin. The specific name, Napellus, signifies a little turnip, in allusion to the shape of the roots.
—Part Used—Collection and Drying. The leaves, stem, flowering tops and root: the leaves and tops fresh, the root dried. The leaves and flowering tops are of less importance, they are employed for preparing Extract of Aconitum, and for this purpose are cut when the flowers are just breaking into blossom and the leaves are in their best condition, which is in June.
The roots should be collected in the autumn, after the stem dies down, but before the bud that is to produce the next year’s stem has begun to develop. As this bud grows and forms a flowering stem, in the spring, some of the lateral buds develop into short shoots, each of which produces a long, slender, descending root, crowned with a bud. These roots rapidly thicken, filled with reserve material produced by the parent plant, the root of which dies as the ‘daughter’ roots increase in size. Towards the autumn, the parent plant dies down and the daughter roots which have then reached their maximum development are now full of starch. If allowed to remain in the soil, the buds that crown the daughter roots begin to grow, in the late winter, and this growth exhausts the strength of the root, and the proportion of both starch and alkaloid it contains is lessened.
On account of the extremely poisonous properties of the root, it is considered desirable that the root should be grown and collected under the same conditions, so that uniformity in the drug is maintained. The British Pharmacopceia specifies, therefore, that the roots should be collected in the autumn from plants cultivated in Britain and should consist of the dried, full-grown 'daughter’ roots: much of the Aconite root that used to come in large quantities from Germany was the exhausted parent root of the wild-flowering plants.
When the roots are dug up, they are sorted over, the smallest laid aside for replanting and the plumper ones reserved for drying. They are first well washed in cold water and trimmed of all rootlets, and then dried, either entire, or longitudinally sliced to hasten drying.
Drying may at first be done in the open air, spread thinly, the roots not touching. Or they may be spread on clean floors or on shelves in a warm place for about ten days, turning frequently. When somewhat shrunken, they must be finished more quickly by artificial heat in a drying room or shed near a stove or gas fire, care being taken that the heated air can escape at the top of the room. Drying in an even temperature will probably take about a fortnight or more. It is not complete till the roots are dry to the core and brittle, snapping when bent.
Dried Aconite root at its upper extremity, when crowned with an undeveloped bud, enclosed by scaly leaves, is about ¾ inch in diameter, tapering quickly downwards. It is dark brown in colour and marked with the scars of rootlets. The surface is usually longitudinally wrinkled, especially if it has been dried entire. The root breaks with a short fracture and should be whitish and starchy within. A transverse section shows a thick bark, separated from the inner portion by a well-marked darker line, which often assumes a stellate appearance. Aconite root as found in commerce is, however, often yellowish or brownish internally with the stellate markings not clearly shown, probably from having been collected too early. It should be lifted in the autumn of the second year.
Aconite root is liable to attack by insects, and after being well dried should be kept in securely closed vessels.
—Chemical Constituents—Aconite root contains from 0.3 to 1 per cent alkaloidal matter, consisting of Aconitine - crystalline, acrid and highly toxic - with the alkaloids Benzaconine (Picraconitine) and Aconine.
Aconitine, the only crystallizable alkaloid, is present to the extent of not more than 0.2 per cent, but to it is due the characteristic activity of the root. Aconite acid, starch, etc., are also present. On incineration, the root yields about 3 per cent ash.
The Aconitines are a group of highly toxic alkaloids derived from various species of Aconite, and whilst possessing many properties in common are chemically distinguishable according to the source from which they are obtained. The Aconitines are divided into two groups: (1) the Aconitines proper, including Aconitine, Japaconitine and Indaconitine, and (2) the Pseudaconitines - Pseudaconitine and Bikhaconitine.
This disparity between Aconites is a very important matter for investigation, though perhaps not so serious from a pharmaceutical point of view as might at first appear, since in the roots of several different species the alkaloid is found to possess similar physiological action; but this action varies in degree and the amount of alkaloid may be found to vary considerably. It is considered that the only reliable method of standardizing the potency of any of the Aconite preparations is by a physiological method: the lethal dose for the guinea-pig being considered to be the most convenient and satisfactory standard. Tinctures vary enormously as to strength, some proving seven times as powerful as others.
The Aconite which contains the best alkaloid, A. Napellus, is the old-fashioned, familiar garden variety, which may be easily recognized by its very much cut-up leaves, which are wide in the shoulder of the leaf - that part nearest the stem - and also by the purplish-blue flowers, which have the 'helmet’ closely fitting over the rest of the flower, not standing up as a tall hood. All varieties of Aconite are useful, but this kind with the close set in helmet to the flower is the most valuable.
The Aconite derived from German root of A. Napellus appears to possess somewhat different properties to that prepared from English roots. The German roots may be recognized by the remains of the stem which crown the root. They are also generally less starchy, darker externally and more shrivelled than the English root and considered to be less active, probably because they are generally the exhausted parent roots.
—Medicinal Action and Uses—Anodyne, diuretic and diaphoretic. The value of Aconite as a medicine has been more fully realized in modern times, and it now rank as one of our most useful drugs. It is much used in homoeopathy. On account of its very poisonous nature, all medicines obtained from it come, however, under Table 1 of the poison schedule: Aconite is a deadly poison.
Both tincture and liniment of Aconite are in general use, and Aconite is also used in ointment and sometimes given as hypodermic injection. Preparations of Aconitc are employed for outward application locally to the skin to diminish the pain of neuralgia, lumbago and rheumatism.
The official tincture taken internelly diminishes the rate and force of the pulse in the early stages of fevers and slight local inflammations, such as feverish cold, larnyngitis, first stages of pneumonia and erysipelas; it relieves the pain of neuralgia, pleurisy and aneurism. In cardiac failure or to prevent same it has been used with success, in acute tonsilitis children have been well treated by a dose of 1 to 2 minims for a child 5 to 10 years old; the dose for adults is 2 to 5 minims, three times a day.
—Note—The tincture of Aconite of the British Pharmacopoeia 1914 is nearly double the strength of that in the old Pharmacopoeia of 1898.
—Poisoning from, and Antidotes—The symptons of poisoning are tingling and numbness of tongue and mouth and a sensation of ants crawling over the body, nausea and vomiting with epigastric pain, laboured breathing, pulse irregular and weak, skin cold and clammy, features bloodless, giddiness, staggering, mind remains clear. A stomach tube or emetic should be used at once, 20 minims of Tincture of Digitalis given if available, stimulants should be given and if not retained diluted brandy injected per rectum, artificial respiration and friction, patient to be kept lying down.
All the species contain an active poison Aconitine, one of the most formidable poisons which have yet been discovered: it exists in all parts of the plant, but especially in the root. The smallest portion of either root or leaves, when first put into the mouth, occasions burning and tingling, and a sense of numbness immediately follows its continuance. One-fiftieth grain of Aconitine will kill a sparrow in a few seconds; one-tenth grain a rabbit in five minutes. It is more powerful than prussic acid and acts with tremendous rapidity. One hundredth grain will act locally, so as to produce a well-marked sensation in any part of the body for a whole day. So acrid is the poison, that the juice applied to a wounded finger affects the whole system, not only causing pains in the limbs, but a sense of suffocation and syncope.
Some species of Aconite were well known to the ancients as deadly poisons. It was said to be the invention of Hecate from the foam of Cerberus, and it was a species of Aconite that entered into the poison which the old men of the island of Ceos were condemned to drink when they became infirm and no longer of use to the State. Aconite is also supposed to have been the poison that formed the cup which Medea prepared for Theseus. (Note—Aconite and Belladonna were said to be the ingredients in the witches’ 'Flying ointments.’ Aconite causes irregular action of the heart, and Belladonna produces delirium. These combined symptoms might give a sensation of 'flying.’—EDITOR)
Various species of Aconite possess the same narcotic properties as A. Napellus, but none of them equal in energy the A. ferox of the East Indies, the root of which is used there as an energetic poison under the name of Bikh or Nabee. Aconite poisoning of wells by A. ferox has been carried out by native Indians to stop the progress of an army. They also use it for poisoning spears, darts and arrows, and for destroying tigers.
All children should be warned against Aconite in gardens. It is wiser not to grow Aconite among kitchen herbs of any sort. The root has occasionally been mistaken for horse-radish, with fatal results - it is, however, shorter, darker and more fibrous - and the leaves have produced similar fatal results. In Ireland a poor woman once sprinkled powdered Aconite root over a dish of greens, and one man was killed and another seriously affected by it.
In 1524 and 1526 it is recorded that two criminals, to whom the root was given as an experiment, quickly died.
The older herbalists described it as venomous and deadly. 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.’ It was supposed to be an antidote against other poisons. Gerard tells us that its power was '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.’ Ben Jonson, in his tragedy Sejanus, says: 'I have heard that Aconite Being timely taken hath a healing might Against the scorpion’s stroke.’
Linnaeus reports Aconite to be fatal to cattle and goats when they eat it fresh, but when dried it does no harm to horses, a peculiarity in common with the buttercups, to which the Aconites are related. Field-mice are well aware of its evil nature, and in hard times, when they will attack almost any plant that offers them food, they leave this severely alone.
–Magickal Uses– Protection, Invisibility. Use this herb with great caution to consecrate the athame or ritual knife. Make an infusion with the leaves or root to banish prior energy from magickal blades and to infuse it with protection. The root or leaves may be burned as incense for the same purpose. Gather the fresh flowers to make a tincture to refresh the power of the knives. Use an infusion as a magickal wash for ritual tools or sacred space. Brings protection and magickal watchfulness against negative energies in ritual. Wash a new cauldron in the infusion or burn aconite in its first fire. Used to invoke Hecate. Wrap the seed in a lizard skin and carry to become invisible at will. Used to poison arrow tips in early times. Also as protection from and a cure for werewolves.
PERSONAL NOTE : I have grown this in my garden for many years ( far from the reach of children and pets) I love this plant. It was a very dramatic appearance in my little “poison garden ” patch. Very rarely do I handle or disturb it, mostly now I just make sure it does not run wild. I have made tinctures and the likes and studied it deeply, but it’s not for the new green thumb. It is a very, very poisonous and deadly plant. I chose this plant today for knowledge, I have seen it growing out of place where it should not( yes, I then remove it if its an area children are known to be), and some parts of the world it still grows wild happily.
PLEASE don’t pick flowers you don’t know, research. Always.