Aconite, whose flowers resemble a monk’s hood, is one of our more ghoulish flowers. Its dark history reaches far back in time, and it has been featured in murderous tales of both fact and fiction. In the language of flowers, it says “misanthropy; poisonous words.”
Hecate, Greek goddess of night and witchcraft, made it spring from the foaming mouth of Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Greeks and Romans tipped their arrows with its deadly poison, hence its Greek name – “ak” – pointed, and “konos” – cone.
Historically, it was used to kill wolves. From this use is derived one of its nicknames – Wolf’s Bane. In Germany, this flower is said to be sacred to the Devil. Crikey.
Nicknamed “the Queen of Poisons” and “Plant Arsenic,” it was nevertheless found in medieval monastery gardens. The monks may have used it in small quantities to induce hallucinations (seeing visions was very desirable for early Christians) or to hasten reaching a higher consciousness.
Ovid reported that “stepmothers mingle the ghastly aconite” into a drug to kill children. Cleopatra used aconite to kill her brother Ptolemy XIV, so she could put her son on his throne. Medea attempted to poison Theseus with it. So notorious did it become as a murderous plant that in A.D. 117 Emperor Trajan had it banned from Roman gardens.
In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Athena sprinkles Arachne with aconite, whereupon she is turned into a spider. It was also said to be used by Thessalonian witches in hallucinogenic flying ointments.
The Berserkers, a Germanic tribe, consumed aconite to transform into werewolves. Its use is said to create a sensation on the skin of wearing fur or feathers, and delusions of changing into an animal.
Canadian actor Andre Noble died during a 2004 camping trip after eating some monkshood while on a hike with his aunt on Fair Island, Newfoundland.
At the inquest of Nathan Greenway, a gardener at Mill Court House in Hampshire, England, who died of multiple organ failure in 2014, it was speculated that his death might have been caused simply by brushing against the plant. Although an open verdict was recorded, the accidental consumption of aconite from monkshood was strongly suspected.
Still, this ancient plant with an unfortunate past has a beautiful form and a lovely bloom. Its height makes it perfect for the back of a shade bed, and its color (deep purple) complements a gold/purple color scheme.
Don’t let this bad boy’s reputation keep you from enjoying it in your garden. Only do be careful.
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.