Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Favorite Fall Flower

Monkshood - aka: wolfsbane and aconite (any Harry Potter fans out there?). Scientific name: Aconitum napellus, in the Family Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family. This is one of my favorite fall flowers, mainly because it blossoms so late - usually after frost, sometimes after we get snow - but also because its blossoms are so unusual.

This year my monkshood has the most beautiful flowers - I've never seen them so huge! You should be able to click on the photo to see the blossoms up really close.

Many years ago I "got into" herbs. It started right out of college at my first nature center internship. The place had some herb books for sale in the gift shop, and I was hooked. At my second job, I really became an herb nut - lots of research into medicinals and their histories. At my third job, I put in my first herb gardens: Culinary, Medicinal, and Dyes & Fragrances. I was there for over four years, and invovled with the Society for Creative Anachronism, so herbs became a huge part of my life. Since returning to New York, however, herbs have taken a back seat (for many reasons), but my interest in them remains.

Which is why I have monkshood in my gardens!
One of the reasons I love herbs is that they have such a long and interesting history, and many myths and legends are associated with them. Monkshood is one of those with a fascinating history, which I shall share with you here.

Mythologically, monkshood was really big with the Greeks. One legend, in which the mighty Hercules was fighting with Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guarded the gateway into Hades), and the dog's saliva dripped on the monkshood plants growing on the hillside, thus making them poisonous. The Greek goddess Hecate is supposed to have killed off her father with a dose of aconite (she was a goddess of, among other things, the magical arts). Medea, who is also famous in Greek legends, apparently knocked off Theseus with it, too. And then there is this, which is enough to give some folks pause: it was believed that women who ate aconite daily from the time they were babies (and apparently didn't die from it) were able to poison others through sexual contact.

Monkshood, as you've no doubt acertained, is a rather lethal poison. In the Old World hunters would dip their arrow tips in a mixture made from the plant and use it in baits to kill wolves (hence the common name Wolfsbane), and apparently soldiers in Europe and Asia would drop it in the wells and other water sources of their enemies (and they say poison is a woman's murder weapon of choice).

Stories of witches flying, which come to us from the Middle Ages, have some basis in fact, but not literal fact. Apparently the "flight" these women took was more virtual, a result of the hallucinogenic properties of an ointment they made up with components from monkshood and belladona. These two herbs, when combined, create a flying sensation, thanks to the irregular heart rate caused by the former, and the delerium caused by the latter. As you can no doubt guess, these ointments had to be used with caution.

Many medicines are lethal if taken in large enough doses, and monkshood found its way into genuine medicines in the 18th century. The qualities it posseses that make it useful are its ability to reduce the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, induce sweating and reduce inflammation. If it is applied to the skin, say in an ointment, it causes localized tingling and numbness, making it a good treatment for rheumatism and other neurologic pains.

That said, this is a dangerous herb. Although many homeopaths and practitioners of Chinese medicine may still use it, it was pulled from the US and British Pharmacopeiae many years ago.

And just what makes it so deadly? The whole plant is infused with assorted toxic alkaloids (aconitine, picratonitine, aconine, benzoylamine, and neopelline), although the root is deemed to be the most toxic part of the plant. Aconitine is the most abundant of the alkaloids, but together they work to stimulate and then depress the central and peripheral nerves. And it doesn't take much to do you in: 5 ml is lethal. Ingestion is the cause of most deaths, but apparently external usage (like the ointments mentioned above) can lead to death if enough of the compounds are absorbed through the skin.

Still, it does make a lovely addition to the garden. Just be sure that you and your family know that it is not to be harvested for food or medicine. Look, but don't touch - that should be its motto.

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