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What is Aconite?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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Aconite, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is a tall perennial plant with distinctive cowl shaped flowers. Historically, aconite has been used medicinally since the days of the ancient Greeks, but it has been more widely used as a powerful poison. Modern creams and herbal remedies made from the plant are sometimes used for pain relief, but these products are widely considered to be dangerous, with a high risk of poisoning.

Varieties of aconite are found throughout the northern hemisphere. The most common, Aconitum napellus, is native to Europe but is cultivated around the world. This plant stands about 3 feet (1 m) tall, with clusters of blue or purple flowers It is from the shape of these flowers that the name monkshood is derived. Landscapers sometimes choose to include monkshood in flower beds, often alongside lower plants.

Wolfsbane, the other common name for aconite, refers to its effectiveness as a poison. All portions of the plant contain a poisonous chemical called aconitine, but concentrations are highest in the root. Aconitine extracted from pulped roots was used by the ancient Greeks and their contemporaries on spears, arrows and other weapons.

Use of this poison was not limited to hunting, and there are many documented accounts of its use throughout history. Soldiers used the poison on weapons in battle and dumped it in the enemy’s water supply. Aconite poisoning was frequently featured in plots throughout history, accounting for the deaths of Roman and Byzantine emperors.

Aconitine was also used for medicinal purposes. Poultices were prepared from wolfsbane and applied topically to treat conditions such as rheumatism. Tinctures made with aconitine were also taken orally for pneumonia, laryngitis and similar complaints. A modern understanding of toxicology makes clear the danger of these treatments.

Despite this understanding, monkshead is used in modern topical creams for use as an herbal remedy for pain. Aconite poisoning occurs more quickly when taken orally, but it can be absorbed through the skin as well. In fact, it is this absorption that allows the cream to reduce pain. Experts agree that patients who use these creams run the risk of aconite poisoning.

When poisoning occurs, tingling and numb sensations are generally the first symptoms noticed. Intense pain, seizures or paralysis might follow, and ultimately heart failure can result. Aconite is one of the deadlier poisons known, and there is no antidote. Emergency medical care focuses instead on removing the toxin from the body and countering the symptoms of the poison.

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