Monday, October 17, 2011

Monkshood - Aconitum napellus

I noticed this blooming in the shade garden this weekend. I purchased it at the plant sale back in May, but didn’t know a whole lot about it – just that it was in the shade section. Monkshood, or Aconitum napellus is also known as Helmet Flower, Friar’s Helmet, Venus’ Chariot, or Wolfsbane. It prefers semi-shade but will tolerate full sun. My shade garden is mostly full shade, so I’m not sure how well it will do there, long-term, but it seems to be fine for now, and, obviously, did bloom this year.

One of the more interesting things about it, is its toxicity. All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the roots, seeds, and new leaves. Legend has it that Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus, used it, along with other deadly compounds, to eliminate political enemies (mostly relatives) that stood in the way of her son, Tiberius, to become Emperor after the death of Augustus. [Update 10/19: Jump to the 4:30 mark of this YouTube from the excellent BBC series I' Claudius for a delightfully evil discussion of plant poisons.]  It also rates a chapter in Amy Stewart’s book, Wicked Plants.
In Greek mythology, deadly aconite sprang from the spit of the three-headed hound Cerberus as Hercules dragged it out of Hades. Legend has it that it got another of its common names, wolfsbane, because ancient Greek hunters used it as a bait and arrow poison to hunt wolves. Its reputation as a witch’s potion from the Middle Ages earned it a starring role in the Harry Potter series, where Professor Snape brews it to assist Remus Lupin in his transformation to a werewolf.
According to Wikipedia, there are 9 subspecies of A. napellus, all originating in Europe, and that plants native to Asia and North America formerly listed as A. napellus are now regarded as separate species. Regardless of origin, it has naturalized in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of North America.

It appears on many Extension lists of deer-resistant plants (deer are not dumb), as well as plant lists poisonous to livestock.

I think it’s kinda purty, and will look for more at next year's sale.


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