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Aconitum napellus is a flowering, perennial member of the Ranunculaceae family better known as aconite. It is also known by various other common nicknames, including monkshood and wolf’s bane. Since it is a tall, attractive plant sporting large bell-shaped flowers of deep blue, it is often grown as an ornamental garden plant. Aconitum napellus has also been crossed with various other plants in the same species to create several other ornamental hybrid species.
Like many beautiful flowering members of the botanical community, Aconitum napellus is highly toxic. In fact, its poisonous compounds have been used for thousands of years to taint the ends of arrows and spears. The ancient Romans considered the herb so dangerous that it was officially banned, and anyone found intentionally cultivating it was sentenced to death. In more recent history, the herb has inspired many murder mystery writers to facilitate the sudden cardiac arrest of a fictional victim by introducing a cook who couldn’t tell the different between aconite and garden spinach. Literature is also rife with victims being brought back from the brink of death by a well-timed dose of the only known anecdote to aconite poisoning: atropine.
Unfortunately, real life accidental poisonings have occurred without the benefit of an available anecdote. In 2004, Canadian actor Andre Noble mistakenly ingested aconite while on a camping trip in his native Newfoundland and later died at the hospital. There have also been reports of poisonings involving alcoholic beverages contaminated with Aconitum napellus, in one case producing symptoms of toxicity within 30 minutes and proving fatal in eight hours. Even handling the leaves or roots has been known to produce toxicity.
In yet another paradox, Aconitum napellus provides some medicinal benefits despite containing several poisonous constituents, namely aconitine, hypaconitine, and mesaconitine. In homeopathic dosages, aconite is used to treat inflammatory conditions, colds, flu, cough, fever, and kidney disorders. It is also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to negate the effects of too much “dampness” associated with “Yang deficiency.” The herb is also used in topical creams and ointments formulated to ease the pain and burning sensations that often accompany arthritis, rheumatism, and neuralgia.
Due to the high level of toxicity of this plant, using it for medicinal purposes without first consulting a medical doctor or a homeopathic practitioner is not recommended. It should also be said that great care should be taken when handling any part of the plant. In fact, gloves are strongly encouraged. Finally, introducing aconite into the home garden is not be advisable if there are young children or pets present.