By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society Unit Chair
Aconitum, as any kid who used to watch the television show Teen Wolf can tell you, is also commonly known as “Wolf’s Bane”. As in, this late summer blooming member of the delphinium family has wicked mojo in repelling werewolves. I believe the sleek, hormone driven werewolves in question referred specifically to “Blue Wolf’s Bane”. That doesn’t narrow the search much: the flowers are usually blue, although there are white and purple varieties.
I can’t tell you how effective Aconitum is against werewolves. But it is also known as “Mouse Bane”, “Leopard Bane” and “Women’s Bane”, and I can tell you that I fit one of those categories, and it never kept me away. Aconitum is a beautiful plant. It thrives in partial shade, doesn’t mind damp feet, and produces its spires of heavenly blue flowers just when the garden is starting to look like it might be thinking of winding things up for fall. It will generally thrive in the same garden as its spring flowering cousins, delphinium and hellebore.
Of course, most of Aconitum’s 250 or so varieties are also extremely poisonous. That may be how the attribution “Bane” tended to come up. There are stories of tipping javelin points in an Aconitum preparation in order to assist in dispatching dangerous prey. Not women, obviously.
It is the poison that dispatched Hamlet, and a few of his nearest and/or dearest when it was applied by the evil Claudius to Laertes’ dueling sword.
Another series of common names for Aconitum reflect the idea that each individual flower on the stalk resembles some sort of hat, hence “Devil’s Helmet” or the more common “Monk’s Hood”. I remember how hard I tried to imagine little foxes wearing gloves after hearing the common name for Digitalis. I’m afraid this is something of the same story.
Aconitum plants contain a powerful neurotoxin, aconitine, which can kill almost instantaneously. There is no antidote. Treatment is mostly supportive. There is some success in purging the toxin from the victim’s system with charcoal. Every part of the plant is toxic to humans. Just touching the plant has sometimes been associated with headache, nausea, and numbness and tingling in the area affected, although not death. But, wash your hands after handling it!
Although there have been cases of homicide through the use of Aconitum, more cases of toxicity arise from people foraging and eating it themselves, either through a mistaken identification or because it’s so pretty. However, those who have lived to tell the tale say that it tastes nasty. Then your mouth goes numb.
It almost goes without saying (but when did that ever stop me?) that there are some who claim therapeutic value for teas or tinctures made from Aconitum. Don’t do it. If a therapeutic dose exists, it is just too close to a dose that would be harmful or fatal. The word, “neurotoxin”, is one obvious tip off. However, we are told that the esteemed, if fictional, herbalist, Brother Cadfael, made a preparation of Aconitum. “Its roots make an excellent rub to remove pain, but it is very potent if swallowed.” As, of course, it is. See the Brother Cadfael mystery novel titled, “Monk’s-Hood”.
There is a great deal of ancient lore about Aconitus. It is also named hecateis, after the goddess Hecate. It is reputed to be an important ingredient in potions that promote flying, but it is also employed to dispatch unfaithful lovers (Medea tried to kill Theseus with it) or upstart rivals (Athene used it to cut short her weaving competition with Arachne).
Pliny the Elder, who was such a devoted naturalist that his life was cut short by venturing too close to the Vesuvian eruption for the sake of science, had this deliciously ominous thing to say about Aconitus: “it is in its nature to kill a human being unless in that being it finds something else to destroy.”
Now that’s wicked!
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