In Sweden there was a popular song some decade ago where the singer sang “Farligt, farligt, men härligt, härligt” which roughly translates (for all those who may not speak Swedish, however inconceivable that is :)) as “Dangerous, oh, so dangerous, but wonderful, oh so wonderful.” This little saying could be applied to one of my favourite plants, the proud and gorgeous monkshood.
A cherished child has many names, so monkshood is also known as aconite, wolf’s bane, woman’s bane, devil’s helmet – to name a few. In some cases, the name refers to its uses. The plant was used to poison wolves with – back in those days when wolves were a constant presence – ergo the name wolf’s bane. It makes one wonder about the name woman’s bane – was it perhaps okay to poison women with this plant, as long as it was done according to some ritual? Or does it refer to the fact that poison is a woman’s weapon, and therefore women would arm themselves with aconite when men went for their swords?
In our country house, I’ve found several stands of monkshood – most of them where we suppose the original kitchen garden once was. I wonder about the woman (of course it was a woman!) who planted this dark-blue beauty. Did she do it because of the flowers, or was she interested in its medicinal uses? Just like most other poisonous plants, monkshood has pharmaceutical qualities – the problem being that dosage is very, very, very sensitive. For example, monkshood could be used as an anaesthetic as it numbs the nerves. An initial tingling is replaced by a long-term anaesthethic – just the thing if you need to sew up a long, nasty sword slash. Except, of course, that if you used it on an open wound, chances were that not only would you numb the limb in need of treatment, but also the lungs, the heart, thereby causing… yup; death.
Just like foxglove, monkshood has been used to treat heart-conditions. If used correctly, it can stabilise an erratic pulse, slowing the heartbeat substantially. Once again, sometimes things can be slowed too much…
No; monkshood was first and foremost a poison, in some cultures it was used to anoint arrows with, while in others it was discreetly slipped into someone’s dinner. (All us Midsumer Murder fans know that we must always be skeptical of fettucine served up with unknown green stuff. Chances are it isn’t spinach, but monkshood, and if so…. bye, bye, goodnight. ) A nasty poison , in that it successively numbs the body while leaving the brain unaffected, so the poor victim will be very much aware of his impending death. An effective poison, as it is difficult to treat – even today. An excellent poison, because it’s quite easy to make. (Well, if you’re in the poisoning business, that is) Prior to modern toxicology, it was also a difficult poison to identify, as most victims seemed to have died of asphyxiation.
So; back to the woman who planted monkshood in her kitchen garden. Did she do it to treat her father-in-law’s galloping heart, hoping perhaps to hasten his way to the grave, a least a little? Or did she know it could help in the treatment of asthma? Or did she simply fall in love with its colour and shape, a little frivolous something to enhance her otherwise so utilitarian garden? Well, I will never know, but as I stoop to properly inspect the complex, hooded flower, I think it was because she yearned for beauty and perfection – however deadly.