Halloween Poisonous Plants

Aconitum Napellus: Queen of Poisons, a Plant Born From the Saliva of Cerberus Himself.

To round off this Halloween series on poisonous plants, I’d like to offer you an article on a plant that’s been dubbed the “queen of poisons”: aconitum napellus. Known by many names, it is said to be the most poisonous plant in Europe. One or two unfortunate grams of its root are enough to cause death in record time: a mere hour and that’s the end. What’s more, its Latin name evokes a magic formula…

“Aconitum napellus,” cried the sorcerer, his wand raised.

And the victim collapsed without so much as a last breath…”

On the menu today: monkshood, aconite, wolfsbane or Venus’ chariot … Call this plant what you like, but whatever you do, don’t eat it!

Photo: uehug

Many Names, Many Species

Aconitum napellus, a 1-meter-high perennial with intriguing purple flowers, is the species with the most powerful poison. There are some 250 species in the aconitum genus, some of which are found in Quebec. The napellus species, however, grows wild only in Europe, particularly in the mountains.

However, the horticultural industry, always on the lookout for new beauties to plant in the garden, has brought aconites onto the market, so you might find a few species at your local garden center. It’s true that its pretty face doesn’t suggest that it hides any terrible secrets…

Photo: lebreton_jean-do

For the purposes of this article, I’ll use the genus name “aconite” to refer to the group in general, and “napellus” for the queen of poisons, aconitum napellus.

Aconitum Napellus, a Look Worthy of the Best Halloween Costumes

Wolfsbane flowers seem to come from another world, lending the plant an enigmatic charm that masks the threat it conceals. Their distinctive helmet-like appearance is the source of the many names given to this plant. Jupiter’s helmet, Minerva’s helmet, monk’s hood, choose your favorite costume.

Admire Minerva’s helmet (or Athena’s, if you prefer). There really is a resemblance, isn’t there?

This plant has tuberized, fleshy, swollen roots, reminiscent of a turnip. It’s this characteristic that gave rise to the name “napellus”; napus being the Latin word for turnip.

For those curious about languages, I discovered during my research that there is no consensus on the name of the genus. So let’s add a little identity problem to our disguise!

Aconitum could come from either the Greek akóniton (pointed cone, referring to the tips of the leaves, or the spearheads with which this poison was coated), akonitos (invincible), or akonae (stony ground). It could also come from Akonai, a village that no longer exists… Those who named this plant may have spent too much time on their hands.

A Quick and Fatal Poison

Behind its bewitching appearance lies a most dangerous poison. The napellus contains toxic alkaloids, including aconitine, which is lethal to many species, including humans. To give you an idea of its potency, the lethal dose of aconitine for an adult is just 3 to 6 milligrams. In practical terms, that’s just 1 to 3 grams of napel root. The entire plant contains the toxin, but it is most concentrated in the roots.

Symptoms of aconitine poisoning begin with painful colic and vomiting, and progress to breathing difficulties, cardiac disturbances and, in the case of severe poisoning, death within an hour. Aconitine is a poison that admits no mistakes.

This is all the more worrying given that some people consume it on a regular basis.

But how? And why?

Be patient, Halloween is only a week away after all! Before we get to these strange beliefs, let’s explore the napellus’s mysterious and turbulent past…

Dark Stories and Chilling Legends

The napellus has been surrounded by sinister myths since ancient times. If you’re looking for a story to tell on the evening of October 31st, you’ll find inspiration in this plant.

Greek Mythology

According to Greek mythology, the origin of this plant can be found in the twelve labors of Heracles. Are you familiar with this story? Heracles was entrusted with arduous, if not impossible, tasks in order to become a god, or to atone for killing his wife and sons.

I know, Disney didn’t quite get the story!

One of his last jobs was to bring Hades’ three-headed dog back from the underworld. Master and beast vanquished, the hero succeeded in bringing the terrible Cerberus back to earth. However, the heavenly beast with the foaming mouth left a few drops of saliva on Earth before being sent back to guard the gates of the Underworld.

According to legend, the evil napellus plant first appeared where Cerberus’ drool fell. Since the victims of its poisoning have symptoms similar to those of rabies, including a tendency to salivate excessively, it’s logical to believe that this plant really comes from the hound of the underworld, doesn’t it?

“In the transports of his terrible rage, the monster at the same time filled the air with his triple barking, and spread a whitish foam over the verdure of the countryside: a plant was born from it, it is said, which, drawing from the bosom of the earth a fertile nourishment, acquired as it grew a fatal virtue; as its vigorous stem grows among the rocks, the inhabitants of the countryside call it aconite.” Ovid, Metamorphoses Book VII

Image: Nicolo Van Aelst (Flanders, 1527-1612), Antonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630)

Still in Mythology…

Medea is said to have tried to kill the hero Jason, who wanted to leave her, with wolfsbane.

In 183 BC, Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general, is said to have chosen to take his own life with a mixture of aconite and hemlock, which he concealed in one of his rings, in order to escape capture by the Romans.

The Gauls are said to have used aconite to poison wolves and bears, hence the name “wolf-killer”. Poisoned meat and poison-tipped arrows were used to hunt and protect flocks and herds from these predators. History books contain many references to the napellus.

In the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, not surprisingly, wolfsbane was associated with black magic. Feared by vampires and demons, it was even prescribed by some healers to those who believed they were werewolves. For J. K. Rowling’s admirers, yes, yes, she has done her research, as this plant is actually used in the potion that enables werewolves to remain conscious during their metamorphoses.

Photo: Veronica

During the Renaissance, the napellus was one of the plants regularly used to poison political enemies. Italy’s Borgia family is famous for its many victims of poisoning. History tells us that enemies could die simply by shaking hands with Caesar Borgia, who was wearing a booby-trapped ring. Whether it was a poisoned cup or a fatal handshake, napel was often a poison used to manipulate power. Father Rodrigo was also involved in similar stories, even though he was appointed pope! Accident or irony, this pope, Alexander VI, died mysteriously… It’s dangerous to drink from the cup of power, isn’t it, dear Alexander?

The horrible suffering caused by ingesting this plant has given it a sinister reputation throughout the ages. Today, however, the napellus is enjoying a certain redemption, for better… and for worse!

Those Who Use Wolfsbane Today…

The subject I’m about to broach here is… delicate. Because I’m a scientist, I’ve tried to remain neutral, but… phew. If you think my texts are scary, I think what follows is even scarier. Are you ready?

Homeopathy. (I get chills just writing that word!) Napellus is used in homeopathy…

Photo: Alesia Kozik

Holistic Medicine

Before going any further, I must explain what this holistic medicine is. I’ve tried to put it into words without offending anyone, but it’s quite difficult for me. So I’ll put here a quote from Joe Schwarcz, Director of the Organization for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal.

“It’s a practice, hatched in the dark ages of science, based on the idea that substances that cause symptoms in a healthy person can cure those same symptoms in a sick person. (So, for example, onions that make you water can be used to relieve hay fever symptoms.) There’s no logic to it, but that’s not where it ends. Homeopaths, defying everything we know about toxicology, believe that diluting a solution containing a homeopathic remedy increases its potency. In fact, to potentiate the remedy, dilutions are made to the point where the final product, in most cases, doesn’t even contain a single molecule of the original remedy.”

Photo: Lisa Fotios

Studies have shown that homeopathy can be effective. Whether it’s a placebo effect or increased water consumption, if you’re treating yourself with homeopathy and it’s working, good for you, keep it up, I encourage you! The important thing is that you feel well, even if… well… let’s move on.

Although wolfsbane is widely known for its toxic properties, homeopathy has found a use for this plant. It is said to combat infections, inflammation, cardiovascular disorders, nervous disorders, sleep disorders, gynecological disorders, nosebleeds, heatstroke… in short, you’ll become immortal by drinking this magic water.

Cerberus’s Gruel

I don’t know about you, but October makes me crave good, comforting casseroles. With the cold, the dark, the witches whispering outside, having a nice warm, well-lit cozy nest is so soothing, isn’t it? But… maybe for your Halloween festivities you want to create a deliberately warm environment to fool your guests? Why not serve them a nice stew? A good vegetable broth? With root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, napellus… er, I mean TURNIP (… if you know what I mean!).
Oh, and add a glass of homeopathic water to terrify your guests! (Well, it would scare the hell out of me!)

Let’s not forget that nature, even in its bewitching beauty, can harbor dangerous secrets. Aconitum napellus remains a striking example of nature’s duality, where beauty and terror meet in a macabre dance.

So ends this special Halloween series, exploring the poisonous plants that have fascinated, frightened and intrigued humankind through the ages. I hope that these articles on hemlock, yew, belladonna and wolfsbane have immersed you in the atmosphere of horror, while providing you with valuable knowledge about these dangerous plants.

Let yourself be carried away by nature’s mystery and enjoy Halloween in complete safety. Let your celebration be one of mystery and adventure!

Photo: Toni Cuenca

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

1 comment on “Aconitum Napellus: Queen of Poisons, a Plant Born From the Saliva of Cerberus Himself.

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