Herb of the Week: Aconite

The information provided below is for reference only. It is not to be used as a medical manual or as any guide to treatment. These are merely meant to be a way to learn about herbs and their uses in history and today. Seek medical advice before using any herbs as they are often dangerous when used without guidance.

When I begin researching an herb I typically start in two places: Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (my copy is from 1987) and the PDR for Herbal Medicines (Third Edition). So since I haven't actually referenced a written work since college, I'll point out what information I have gotten from which source the best I can)

This weeks herb is Aconite (Aconitum Napellus)

Common names: Wolf's Bane, Wolfbane, Monkshood, Blue Rocket, Friar's Cap, Auld Wide's Huid, Helmet Flower, Mousebane, Priest's Pintle, and Soldier's Cap

(from Rodale, pages 1-2)
It is a perennial herb that flowers late summer and fall. The flowers are typically violet but there are both white and mauve varieties as well. It grows 2-4 feet tall and is native to the mountains of France, Switzerland, and Germany, but is widely cultivated in Europe and North America.

Aconite is a very poisonous plant and has been used throughout history as a poison. On the island of Ceos, aconite was used for euthanasia of the old, and hunters used it on arrow tips and in bait to hunt wolves. In Europe and Asia it has been used during ancient warfare to taint the water supply of enemies.

Not just a poison, it was introduced to "modern" medicine in 1763 and was added to the London Pharmacopoeia in 1788 and also the first U.S. Pharmacopoeia.

It slows the heart, decreases blood pressure, induces sweating and reduces inflammation. Topical application results in numbness of the area.

The therapeutic dose of this plant is very close to the toxic dose and thus this herb should never be used for treatment. The entire plant, but especially the root is toxic. The alkaloids present in the plant first stimulate and then suppress the nervous system.

Although hardy in zones 2-7 I will not provide any additional information on cultivating this plant due to its toxicity. Cases of poisonings have been reported when the leaves were mistook for parsley or the roots for horseradish. Children and pets must be kept away from this herb! If you bust grow it, handle this plant only when wearing gloves to slow the oil absorption into the skin.

PDF for Herbal Medicines (pages 571-572) (Monkshood)
This book claims no useable medicinal parts because it is a DEADLY POSION (my added emphasis).

In experimental pharmacology Aconite is used due to its ability to trigger cardiac arrhythmia. The fist sign of poisoning is a tingling of the mouth, fingers, and toes, which spreads over the entire body and then changes to a "furry" sensation. Body temperature decreases quickly and nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and urination follow.

In fatal doses breathing will become irregular and the heart beet slows and becomes arrhythmic. Death follows in about 6 hours, typically due to heart failure or asphyxiation. Medical intervention is necessary to countermeasure the poison, often including gastrointestional emptying, and administration of drugs to fight bradycardia and arrhythmias.

The 1996 edition of the National Herb Garden Guidebook (medicinal garden section) also references Aconite under Monkshood (page 62) and claims that Russian botanists and cancer specialists recognize it as having anti-carcinogenic properties .

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