Friday, 6 March 2015

Medieval Plants: Aconite

A column looking at medieval plants and what they were use for.

Aconitum variegatum 110807f
Photo by: Bernd Haynold
Note: Aconite is extremely poisonous, even just through skin contact.  Be careful when dealing with this plant and do NOT try any 'remedies' mentioned here.

Latin name: Aconitum napellus

aka Monkshood and Wolfsbane, more anciently: thelyphonou, cammaron, pardalianches or scorpio

The name ‘monkshood’ was applied to the plant because the shape of the flowers look like the hood monks wear (Kowalchik, p. 1-2).

According to Pliny, Aconite was created during a fight between Hercules and Cerebus, the three headed hound that guarded the gate to the underworld.  The spittle of Cerebus hit the earth and the plant popped up.  This is why the plant is such a powerful and fast acting poison.  Pliny also said that aconite, taken in mulled wine, could neutralize scorpion venum (the idea here is that the poison in aconite would attack the venom instead of the host, thereby neutralizing both poisons).  He also claimed it was good for eye ailments. (Pliny v5, p218-221).

Pliny believed taking a mixture of castorea (a liquid excreted from beavers’ testes) with milk or water could neutralize the effects of aconite [for a fun and disturbing look at what castoreum is still used for today, look on this wikipedia page] (v6, p15).

Aconite was used during war time to poison wells.  At other times it was used to poison rats (Freeman, 34) and as bait for wolves (hence its name ‘wolfsbane’) and panthers.  In ancient India, arrow-heads were treated with it for hunting tigers (Lehner, p53).

There was a belief that witches mixed aconite with belladona to create an ointment they then rubbed on their bodies in order to ‘fly’.  Legends claim that women exposed to small amounts of the poison from infancy could poison their lovers through sexual contact (Kowalchik, p. 1-2)

In the language of flowers, aconite stands for misanthropy and poisonous words.  It symbolizes crime and is considered the herb of Satan (probably due to its witchcraft connection) (Lehner, p53). 


Kowalchick, Claire and William Hylton, Ed. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1998.

Lehner, Ernst and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Dover Publications, 2003

Pliny. Natural History v. 1-6. Trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1851.

1 comment:

Karin said...

it's got pretty flowers, but i just may not put this in my 'harry potter' garden, which i haven't got yet. Except dragon's blood sedum