Monkshood: The Ornamental Queen of Poisons

Often grown as an ornamental, Monkshood (Aconitum) is a collective genus of plants with tall stems of beautiful blue and purple flowers. It is often known by quite a range of different colloquial names, including wolf’s bane, aconite, and queen of poisons. With the former and latter hinting at its powerful nature…

The genus contains species such as Aconitum napellus and Aconitum uncinatum, but they often all fall under the same name of Monkshood. Each has varying levels of toxins, but overall the whole genus is treated with a large amount of caution.

Aconitum napellus in the Pyrrenes | Photo by Patrice78500 on Wikimedia Commons

What Are The Active Compounds in Monkshood?

Aconitine is the most notable active compound in monkshood plants. It’s highly toxic and is fatal in relatively small doses. Even a few leaves are enough to create a fatal dose, and there have been cases of people either needing serious medical attention or sadly dying after consuming only a small amount.

What are the Symptoms of Monkshood Poisoning?

The onset of symptoms is quick, and will usually involve vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heartbeats, and death. If a large amount of the plant is eaten, treatment is almost impossible, as the toxins act so quickly.

It is an incredibly potent plant, and there are documented cases of mild symptoms being experienced after touching the plant. There were also a number of inconclusive cases where simply touching monkshood was thought to have been the cause of death.

What is the Medicinal Potential of Monkshood?

It’s important to note that the primary use of monkshood was as a poison. However, some traditional medicines have used tiny quantities of processed monkshood extract to treat ailments like high blood pressure, inflammation, and minor breathing difficulties. In slightly higher quantities it was also used as a form of sedation. Generally, medical use is not recommended due to the potency of the toxins in this herb.

In Ayurveda and other traditional medicinal practices monkshood is still used to this day, and some species have even become endangered due to over collection.

Indian Medicinal Plant – Aconitum ferox | Image from Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar and Baman Das Basu on Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Symbolism and Mythology of Monkshood

Known by a wide selection of names, including ‘Queen of Poisons’, it’s no wonder that the mythological history of monkshood is so richly interesting. Here is a selection of supposed tales and legends that it is associated with.

  • Some records suggest monkshood was added to arrow heads to kill wolves, helping to give it the colloquial name ‘wolf’s bane’.
  • In some traditional beliefs it was thought that witches used a mixture of deadly plants, including monkshood and deadly nightshade to create a flying potion. These flying potions were thought to be related to a type of ‘hallucinogenic trip’.
  • The death of Cleopatra has sparked debate over the centuries, with some believing she was bitten by an asp (poisonous snake), and others assuming she drank a poisonous cocktail which could have contained monkshood.
  • Monkshood, or wolf’s bane, is often associated with werewolves. A germanic tribe known as the Berserkers consumed wild edibles to bring on a fearless rage that was likened to werewolves. They were thought to have consumed a hallucinogenic mix of mushrooms or plants, possibly containing monkshood. It is also mentioned within the Harry Potter series in a potion used to relieve painful symptoms during the transformation into a werewolf.
One of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on ÖlandSweden. It probably depicts a weapon dancer followed by a Berserker. | Image by Knut Stjerna on Wikimedia Commons

Recent Monkshood Poisonings

There was a very recent case of monkshood poisoning in 2021 after a misinformation post on social media caused a small health crisis. The president of Kyrgyzstan promoted monkshood root as a possible treatment for COVID-19, and alarmingly several people had to be hospitalized after following his advice.

What Does Monkshood Look Like?

When flowering monkshood can often resemble foxglove – with tall spikes of flowers emerging from a cluster of spiraling leaves. Unlike the foxglove, monkshood leaves are lobed, creating a slight feathered appearance. The flower colors vary from bright blue, yellow, purple, pink, and white, with deep purple being the most common coloring.

Where Does Monkshood Grow?

Different species of monkshood favor different climates and locations, though generally, they are endemic to the Northern hemisphere only. Southern blue monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) can be found across the Appalachian mountains, whereas the Northern blue monkshood can be found in a select few Northeastern states like New York and Ohio.

A close up of Aconitum napellus flowers | Photo by Daniel Barthelemy on Wikimedia Commons

Generally, monkshood favors mountainous habitats. Often you’ll see small clusters of them across mountain meadows, with their ornamental blue flower spires drawing the eye. They’re also grown specifically for the horticultural trade and are a popular choice in gardens.

Did You Know…

The name monkshood was inspired by the shape of the flowers, which resemble hoods once worn by monks within monasteries


A particularly potent plant with a rich history of Werewolves, witches, and notable deaths. It’s a beautiful plant that has a very solid place within human history as a plant of interest.

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