Herbs, Wolfsbane

wolfsbaneMonkshood (Aconitum napellus) is not just poisonous for wolves.  It contains a neurotoxin, aconitine,  that can kill humans and other animals.  All parts of the plant are poisonous.  You should wear gloves when handling it and wash your hands afterwards.  When grown in your garden, be sure to keep small children and pets away from it.  Deer will also stay away.  Butterflies are attracted to it.

Historically, the poison from monkshood has been used in hunting wolves, bears and even whales.  Unfortunately, it has also been used in warfare.  The tips of soldiers’ spears were dipped in poison to hasten the deaths of their foes.

Despite being poisonous, monkshood has been used medicinally in Chinese, Japanese and Ayurvedic medicine.  It is also mentioned as a poison in Greek and Roman records.

Monkshood gained its name from the shape of its flower which resembles the hood on a monk’s habit.  It is a perennial plant hardy from zones 4 through 8.  The plants die to the ground in the fall.  It is native to the northern hemisphere.  Monkshood will tolerate full sun, but prefers partial shade.  It likes rich, moist soil so keep it well-watered.  Full grown specimens are anywhere from 3 to 5 feet tall.  When grown in partial shade, the plants need staking.  Bloom time is late summer/early fall.  The flowers are blue and borne on stalks.  Newer cultivars can be white or bicolor, blue and white.

Monkshood is usually propagated by division.  Dig them up in the fall or spring and divide them gently.  The roots are brittle and break easily.  Unlike most perennials, they don’t need to be divided regularly which is fortunate because they don’t like having their roots disturbed.

Growing from seed is difficult.  The seeds need a period of cold stratification or should be sown directly into your garden in the fall, early winter or early spring.  Plant them where you want them to grow because they don’t like being transplanted.  Be patient.  Seeds take 1 to 2 years to germinate.