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Wednesday, 07 September 2011 14:24

Monkshood — both beautiful and deadly

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Usually I locate rare plants by visualizing them and visiting likely habitats. It’s as if I can will them into existence. But this time was different. It was just suddenly there. By chance, while looking for another plant, I literally stumbled into a stand of monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) alongside a seepage area on Chunky Gal Mountain in Clay County. It was the perhaps the fifth time I have encountered the plant in the Smokies region in the past 40 or so years.

Monkshood displays one of the most striking flowers in North America. They appear in late summer or fall on a smooth stem about three to five feet in length that reclines on foliage of other plants. Like other members of the Buttercup Family (wild geranium, delphenium, etc) the leaves are deeply cleft into three or five lobes.

Arising from the leaf axils the translucent bluish-purple flowers seem to glow with an inner light in the shaded moist habitats it favors. The common name is derived from the uppermost sepal, which is shaped like a helmet or hood. The closely related and very rare plant called wolfsbane (A. reclinatum), which I have never encountered, is described as having whitish or yellowish flowers.

Monkshood is beautiful. It is also deadly poisonous. According to Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski’s Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (1991), the potent alkoloids it harbors are acontine and aconine. When ingested for whatever misguided reason, symptoms include tingling and burning of the face and throat, severe vomiting, headache, cold feeling, slow heart rate, paralysis, and delirium … followed by either recovery or death.

This notion was reinforced at a dinner party in 1856 in the Scottish village of Dingwall when two priests were served a sauce into which monkshead root (mistaken for horseradish) had been grated. Fans of the Harry Potter series will perhaps recall that Professor Snape brews monkshood to assist Remus Lupin in his transformation to a werewolf.        

Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. In Japan it was used to hunt bear. And in China it was used in warfare.

It is well documented that the Cherokees used various plant extracts (buckeye and devil’s shoestring, a vetch) to dope fish. But there is seemingly no evidence that the Cherokees used any sort of poison on their arrows when hunting wild game or in warfare.

However, if such use is ever documented, it’s likely that monkshood will be implicated.   

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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