This was the second year I’ve had Monkshood in my witch’s garden. I tried growing it from seed with no luck. I have little patience for slow germinating seeds. But I found a source for live plants and ordered a couple. Both survived and even bloomed, unusual for Monkshood in its first year. It was the last bloom of Autumn in the witch’s garden.
This year they came back, after a pretty cold winter. With more than twice as many blooms.
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) is a perennial wildflower, found in mountainous and temperate regions of western and central Europe, as well as parts of Asia. It grows about three foot tall (one meter), has dark green palmate leaves and produces spiky clusters of hood like flowers, ranging in color from dark to purple to blue.
It’s often confused with its yellow cousin, Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycocotonum), another Aconite, with most people seeming to believe they are the same plant. Equally lethal, Wolfsbane contains a different kind of poison and blooms earlier in the season, compared to Monkshood which blooms in late summer/autumn.
It’s one of, if not the most poisonous plants in the witch’s garden, along with Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, another aconite.
Monkshood is particularly difficult to start. It’s slow to germinate if you can get the seeds to germinate at all. The cold strata method works best, though you can try sewing them into pots on the winter solstice. It usually takes a couple of years for the plant to bloom, unless propagating by root division. It can also take up to three years for it to reach its full height.
Monkshood grows in zones 3-7, so it’s fairly hardy once started. In the winter it will die down to ground level. A good portion of cow manure is also helpful. In essence you want to develop a rich, slightly moist soil, similar to a forest floor. You don’t have to worry about deer with Monkshood, but some caterpillars find it tasty. You want a location that drains well, as it hates standing in water.
It also hates being transplanted, hence the need to plant it in the right spot the first time. A slightly shaded, sheltered spot away from garden traffic is ideal, as you don’t want to even brush up against this plant. You also don’t want to grow it near any plants you might ingest later, for fear of contamination or accidentally eating a bit of Monkshood. If you do you will likely die and it won’t be pleasant. There is no chemical antidote to Monkshood poisoning.
How Monkshood kills
Monkshood isn’t a subtle poison. The taste is bitter, very bitter. It burns in the mouth before numbness sets in, making speech difficult. It’s an agonizing death, very painful, provoking both anxiety which raises the heart rate and lowers the blood pressure, and also causes increasing paralysis. The victim stays conscious till the end, which is usually from heart failure.
The length of time varies from about an hour to a bit longer, depending on how much poison is ingested and how long it stays in the stomach. A small amount might cause no more than a numb face and mouth and upset tummy. Less than a half teaspoon of tincture has been known to kill. A full teaspoon makes death almost a certainty.
Coming into contact with the leaves or other parts of the plant can lead to dermatitis, dizziness and nausea. If it reaches an open wound, even contact can cause death.
It goes without saying that you should always wear gloves when handling the plant, and dispose of them immediately after.
A history of Monkshood
There’s a story from Homer, later embellished by Ovid that Hecate created Monkshood from the saliva of Cerberus, the three headed hound which guards the entrance to Hades. Some sources place this legend at a now abandoned village in Turkey named Akonai, where there is a cave which is believed to have been the entrance to Hades.
Another legend has the story taking place near Mount Akonitos in Asia Minor. The common denominator in Monkshood myths is its use as a poison. Medea, a Scythian sorceress tried to use it on Theseus. Aconite is the poison Athena used to change Arachne to a spider when she dared outspin the goddess. Arrow heads were smeared with the poison to make them doubly fatal. In some cases the shafts were coated as well so anyone pulling the arrow from the body would be poisoned as well. The Romans used to poison their enemies food and water supply and even Claudius, the emperor fell to aconite poisoning.
It was still making appearances in literature when Shakespeare referred to an aconite blade in Hamlet.
A more creative technique for poisoning with Monkshood was carried out by Calpurnius Bestia, who would smear his finger with an extract made from the roots which he would then use to touch his wive’s genitalia, which absorbed the poison and led to their deaths.
Monkshood and the witch’s broom
Monkshood is perhaps best known as one of the ingredients in the medieval witch’s flying potion. You ever wonder why witch’s were thought to ride brooms? It goes back to Calpurnius Bestia and his technique for poisoning.
The flying potion is on paper at least a potent cocktail which should prove fatal, and would certainly if digested. It often consisted of any combination of Belladonna, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Hemlock and Monkshood or Wolfsbane, held together in an entirely disgusting paste made from the fat of dead babies dug up from the local churchyard, or procured through more devious means.
The witch was believed to lather herself up with it, which would have produced an intense buzz as it would certainly work its way through the pores. But perhaps the alternate technique would be to coat the broom handle, then place it between her legs, ala Calpurnius. That would make it work even more effectively and quickly, though would at least lead to a truly nasty rash down there.
Some believe it also contained opium poppy. It’s long been debated whether this potion made the witch truly fly, or just believe she was flying. Since we all know there were no such things as witches and they certainly couldn’t fly – right? – then it had to be merely in the head. The noted occultist and historian Carl Kiesewetter tried to replicate the potion himself in 1895, but didn’t survive to tell what he found out on this point.
Bartolommeo Spina, a dominican of Pisa wrote in 1525 of a man who came home to find his wife, naked and unconscious in the pigsty, her vagina exposed and red. Recognizing that his wife was a witch, he almost killed her on the spot. But he allowed her to regain consciousness to find she had smeared the pig with the ointment and rode it on her journey.
The difference between Monkshood and Wolfsbane
For most practical purposes, Monkshood can be replaced by its close relative, Wolfsbane. Both are equally lethal, though a slightly different form of Aconite. While Monkshood was known to be grown in medieval monastery gardens, and is in fact still a somewhat popular garden plant, Wolfsbane is more known as a wildflower. With yellow blooms rather than purple, and an earlier blooming time, it also has one quality according to legend that Monkshood doesn’t share.
Wolfsbane was believed to have been used to ward off werewolves, and in some cases act as a cure.
For its common usage, and where Wolfsbane likely got its name, Monkshood works equally as well. Wolves, panthers and other wild and dangerous creatures were often dispatched with the poison from the plant, either through baiting them with tainted meat, or shooting them with aconite coated arrows. It was even believed that rabies might be caused by dogs and other critters accidentally ingesting the plant.
Monkshood is a lovely flower for the witch’s garden. It provides a late burst of color prior to winter, but it shouldn’t be grown without intent and consciousness. Too many people have died, and continue to die stupid because of mishandling. It can be grown safely, tucked away in a corner of the garden, locked away from little people who like to pick flowers. Be cautious because Monkshood doesn’t give you a second chance.