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What is Wolfsbane?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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Wolfsbane is a flowering plant consisting of over 200 species. A member of the buttercup family, the plant has many alternative names, including women’s bane, leopard’s bane, devil’s helmet, blue rocket, monkshood, aconite, and its official name, aconitum. The plant has laid claim to many diverse uses, ranging from herbal medicine to poisonous weaponry.

The structure of wolfsbane is relatively simple. The plant grows as a long, straight stem, and from this stem protrude dark green leaves and a helmet-shaped flower with anywhere from two to ten petals. Flowers come in a range of colors, from blue to yellow to pink. As a perennial plant, wolfsbane is hardy and can typically live numerous years. It naturally grows in damp, high elevations.

While wolfsbane can be found in many flower gardens, it also has other non-traditional uses. For example, many species of the plant contain roots that are poisonous. As a result, humans have often harvested the roots and synthesize them into a poison for use on weapons in hunting and war. This practice is particularly common in certain rural tribal areas of China and Japan. Even a small amount of exposure to the roots can produce tingling and numbness, and large-scale exposure can induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, and even death.

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In contrast, Chinese herbal medicine finds many beneficial uses for the plant. Herbalists have claimed successful treatments for the following ailments: general pain, fever, chills, urinary issues, colds, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, and appendicitis, to name a few. The herb’s purported capability to numb and slow body functions generates these treatments. Due to its possible toxic effects, however, herbal medicine specialists typically prepare only small doses, and in many treatments the wolfsbane is diluted with ginger and other substances. Traditional physicians also occasionally utilized the plant in the early 20th century as a numbing form of anesthesia applied to skin or respiratory areas.

Wolfsbane has found its way into supernatural lore as well. Its name derives from the plant’s storied capabilities with werewolves: either as an agent of transformation or an agent of death. In addition, the word frequently appears in witchcraft spells. Famed playwright William Shakespeare even referenced the plant as an evil hypnotic drug with dangerous powers of suggestion.

The secret of successfully growing wolfsbane is close imitation of its natural conditions. Seeds should be kept in a wet, cold state for several weeks before planting. When handling seeds, one should be careful as they contain poisonous elements. The seeds should be sown in temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), and the plant should be kept out of direct sunlight. A healthy wolfsbane plant will bloom in the summer and can grow up to 98 inches (about 250 centimeters) tall.

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