Wolfsbane – A plant that bites back. A cautionary tale.

The plant genus Aconitum is known by a number of common names, including ‘Wolfsbane’ and ‘Monkshood’. As is often the case with common names, they derive from superstitious or actual significance. I believe the name ‘Wolfsbane’ comes from it’s use as a poison against wolves, which for a long time terrorized the human occupants of Northern Europe. The name ‘Monkshood’  comes from the shape of the flower, resembling the shape of a monk’s hood. Today it would be maybe more relevant to call these the ‘Skater Flower’ because they look like someone wearing a hoodie. A bit.  In medieval times bales of Aconitum foliage were sometimes lit on fire and catapaulted into besieged castles – an early form of chemical warfare.

I had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with the powerful effects of this plant while working on the plant nursery a number of years ago. I was well-aware of the deadly effects of these plants – (so I had no excuse), but it was a warm spring afternoon – the midges were buzzing around me and I had to finish splitting and re-potting the whole row that I was working on (including some Aconitum) before jumping in the car to get the kids from school.

I had gloves – to start with – but they had split earlier and I had discarded them as they were totally in the way. (Oops)

I was about halfway through the block of Aconitum napellus albus (this pretty white form on the left), when I realized that I was having problems moving my fingers. Double Oops. At this point my error was pretty apparent, so I dropped the plant I was working on and headed up the hill to the house with just a modicum of cold panic in my heart.

Firstly I had to let someone know what had happened – as far as I knew I had maybe 10 minutes left and had to make sure someone would be able to pick up the kids from school. Next, I washed my hands REALLY well, although they were feeling increasingly limp, numb and unresponsive. The juice from the roots was slippy on my fingers as I tried to rinse it off. First with just water and then with detergent (if I went straight for the detergent there is a real risk it would help the toxin pass through the skin). After this I went to ‘Google’ what my options were. The toxins in Aconitum work fast – they can diffuse through your skin and soon find their way through your bloodstream, working their way up your arms stopping nerve impulses, and eventually reaching your torso and then stopping the heart from beating and your lungs from breathing. At this point my arms were pretty numb and I had a pretty odd sensation in my elbows. I had the juice from the roots all over my fingers and the roots have the highest concentration of the toxin, Aconitine. There is no true antidote, I was 30 minutes from a Hospital and in no fit state to drive.

So I sat there, arms numb – and waited.

Thankfully, as it turns out,  the amount on my hands wasn’t actually enough to kill me – hence me writing this now. Eventually the numbness started to recede and my heart rate picked up again. But it was a bit of a surprise at the time, and I ended up being a little late at school pick-up time. After that I never handled the damned lovely plants again.

Subsequent research on the historical use of Aconitum has informed me that it was used as an anaesthetic at a pinch, but that herbalists are cautious about using it because there is little difference between the therapeutic and fatal dose thresholds.

In gardens they are OK – but they would be one to warn the kids about. Plant them at the back of a border – and just leave them be.

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