Thursday, October 16, 2008


Here's the drill at my folks' place in Virginia: I go to a plant nursery with them and, on a whim, we pick up a few perennials that I want to watch grow in order to decide if I like them. I plant them and presume them deceased when, after a year, they have done nothing. Inevitably, a few years later, they rise from the dead and baffle my parents, who wonder 'Where did this come from?' They take a picture, email it to me and I feel a little surge of relief to know that I didn't kill the damn thing.

This happened recently with Lycoris squamigera, and today I received these photos of Aconitum.

Aconitum has some of the coolest common names, ever: monkshood, woman's bane, wolfsbane, devil's helmet and leopard's bane. Apparently this plant is the ruin to a fair amount of forbidding creatures.

This is primarily due to the many toxicological (or therapeutic, depending on how you look at it) uses its various species possess. In some cases, they provide the poison for arrows; in other cases it has been used as an anodyne (painkiller that functions by creating numbness).

For most of these species, the plant is benign in only the tiniest of doses and is cultivated with great care. A bit too much can result in fatal consequences. A few famous literary characters have died from Aconitum poisoning, including Leopold Bloom's father in James Joyce's Ulysses. Medea tried to use it for her murderous plot and, more recently, Harry Potter has been quizzed on the proper use of wolfsbane at Hogwart's.

It's pretty easy to understand why the common names monkshood and devil's helmet are applied to Aconitum -- the flowers are shaped like a hood or helmet. The other common names most likely relate to the pharmaceutical reputation this plant has accrued over the ages and across cultures.

The scientific name also relates to the plant's toxic qualities: Aconitum is derivative from the Greek word for dart and can be loosely translated as unconquerable poison.

1 comment:

daryoush said...

I love this post. You're full of so much awesome trivia.