Aconitum

Torikabuto in Japanese which means the “bird’s samurai-helmet” or Aconitum carmichaelii. 250 species of Aconite (common name monkshood or wolfsbane). This is a bad photo and I’ve got a better one somewhere but I can’t find it at the moment. They are native in the northern island of Japan.

Aconitum carmichaeli is the Azure or Chinese Monkshood. It was formerly called A. fischeri after Friedrich Ernst Ludwig Fischer (1782・854), who was the director of the botanic garden in St. Petersburg. The present species name is after Dugald Carmichael (1772・827), a sea captain born on the Isle of Lismore, Scotland, & who was most knowledgeable in botany, geology & ichthyology.Monkshood

An 1898 medical text, King’s American Dispensary, mistakenly identified a common Rocky Mountain native monkshood as A. fischeri, & dubbed it American Aconite. But that classic text failed to recognize A. columbianum as a distinct species, & Fischer’s, Carmichael’s, or Azure Monkshood’s extensive range does not include North America. It grows in temperate regions of northern Japan, China, & eastern Russia, & is called Wu Tou in China.

It flowers deep blue in September & October, the last monkshoods to bloom. The flowers occasionally tend to bunch up near the top of the spike, sometimes nearly forming a “ball” of cowled flowers facing every direction. In our garden its leaves have had an attractive reddish brown autumn coloration in October well before it shows any signs of dying back for winter; the first October 2002 photo at top shows some of this coloration This is a bit different from the other monkshoods that merely die back without first gaining interesting leaf color.

Azure Monkshood is one of the more poisonous species, probably the equal of the European variety. But it is claimed that it has been so very long cultivated in China that several gardened strains through a millenium of selectivity are today less toxic, so that its toxins have been usable in Chinese herbal medicine with reduced risk. This is highly doubtful. A Hong Kong study has shown that people seeking Chinese herbal doctors are frequently injured by prescriptions, & the two herbal remedies most apt to result in cardiovascular arrest are Cao Wu & Chuan Wu. These are respectively derived primarily from wild-gathered A. kusnezoffi & from cultivated A. carmichaeli.

With the second, third, & fourth photos from September 2003, I’ve tried to show the progression of color as the blooms mature. The second photo at mid-September shows the swollen buds just before they open. At this stage the backs of the closed hoods are grey & the fronts are pale blue.

Monkshood
But a week later, as shown in the third photo, the hoods are still mostly closed in front, but swollen in size, & a fantastically vibrant blue with an almost metallic sheen. I was so happy this look came out pretty well in the third photo, as the sheen is hard to capture with a digital camera. A few days further along, the hoods are fully opened, revealing their creamy white interiors; & the hood is a paler blue.

In 2004 the blooms came a bit later, & were at their height in October, with many more spikes of flowers than for the first year, growth-rate being more rapid than any other monkshood we have.

In its shady location in our garden, it is the first of our many aconites to return after their winter die-back, despite that it is late to bloom. The basal leaves are already returning by mid-January, getting a good long jump on spring, though the clump doesn’t achieve its full size until May. The primary leafy clump grows two to three feet high, plus leafed spikes of flowers extending the height to no less than four feet on most specimens, but ours reaches seven feet, as it wants to reach above the surrounding shrubbery, lifting its flower-heads above the huckleberries into a bit more sun. We have a cultivar of this speces, ‘Arendsii.’ that stays smaller.

MonkshoodWhen young, though the tallest stems sometimes lean a bit, it does so in a sturdy rather than weak manner, looking devil-may-care. Elsetimes it stands extremely upright. But an old clump can be so very tall & topheavy for flowers that it does tip. Ours has never needed staking, but that’s mainly because it manages to lean into the branches of the fountaining Oyama magnolia & never tips too much to become unappealing. The much smaller clump of basal leaves, however, can be weak & floppy, & occasionally a bit creeper-like, & when not flowering has something of the effect of a crane’s-bill but with way bigger leaves.

Though monkshood is banned for internal use in the United States, & Chinese herbs derived from it cannot legally be imported, there have nevertheless been cases of its illegal importation under the less easily recognized label “Rhizome Carmichaeli.” So hypochondriacs with alternative medicine addictions should be wary whenever consulting their favorite vaunted & over-romanticized Chinese quack, whose concoctions frequently include mercury, aconite, or diabetes medicines mixed into them as the actual “active” & extremely dangerous ingredients. Or western homeopathists for that matter, many of whom seem constitutionally incapable of of plying their dubious trade within the strictures of troublesome public health laws, have been known to adapt legally obtained garden specimens to their magical system which preposterously claims to reverse the effects of deadly toxins by using poisonous plants to treat the sorts of ailments the toxins cause.

Most monkshoods have a little trouble “bouncing back” from being dug up & divided, as their substantial root systems do not like being disturbed. But A. carmichaeli having been so long cultivated in China it is reputedly more amenable to being divided every few years, preferably in autumn or winter because it is already growing back by spring & will by then resent being disturbed. This feature is perhaps debatable, & I wouldn’t divide it unless it had gotten burdensomely large or had weaker blossoms after five or six years.

It is certainly one of the hardiest species in this hardy genus, asking only a little protection from harsh sun, & requiring consistent moisture. Highly adaptable as to soil conditions, it grows in clayey soils, sandy soils, & loamy soils. A moderately loamy soil is likely its favorite & it will flower best in autumn if not subjected to too droughty a summer.

As is true of other monkshoods & delphiniums, Azure Monkshood can inhibit the growth of nearby plants. This is especially so with legumes. Yet the majority of plants will thrive near monkshoods.

The legends behind the European aconitum are interesting:

A. napellus is one of the most poisonous of this highy toxic genus. It was used throughout Europe as a wolf poison, & in India as a tiger poison, lacing meat left for the mankillers to scavenge. Several of its common names allude to this value: Wolfsbane, Leopard Bane, Tiger Bane, Dog’s Bane, & occasionally, a mite absurdly, Wolf’s Hat. It was even called Mousebane, due to Pliny’s absurd claim that it was so potent a poison that the very odor of it would kill a mouse at a great distance.

The marvelously unique shape of the blossoms gave rise to the most common name, Monkshood, but other names alluding to its helmet-like shape have included Friar’s Cap, Friar’s Cowl, Helmet Flower, Soldier’s Helmet, Cuckoo’s Cap, Turk’s Cap, or among ancient Germanic peoples, Thor’s Helm, in Scandinavia Stormhatt or Oktober Stormhatt, & in Scotland, Auld Wife’s Huid (Old Wife’s Hood). Even in Japan, which has its native species of nearly identical appearance, it is called Hana-tori Kabuto, meaning flower-bird samurai helmet.

Still others thought it looked like a little carriage, so it was called King’s Coach, Chariot of Venus, or Cupid’s Car. The latter two names may have alluded to monkshood as an ingredient in witches’ most sought-after product, love potions, though the outcome of using such a filtre is perhaps reflected in another folk-name, Mourning Bride, with the hood in that case seen as a widow’s veil. Its association with sorcery lent it yet another baleful name, Witch’s Bane. In late medieval times it was thought to be a key ingredient in a potion that permitted witches to fly. But of all its wonderful names, Monkshood, Wolfsbane, or Aconite are most used today.

In mythology, Monkshood was nefarious Medea’s poison of choice. Ovid said she gathered it in Scythia, where it first grew from the slobber of three-headed Cerberus, the terrible dog that guards the gate to Tartarus. Pliny also tells the story of Hercules dragging the monstrous beast through its cavern to chain it to a pillar, & from its howling snapping jaws slavering froth flung out of cave giving rise to this plant in the mortal world. So when called “Dogbane,” Cerberus the offspring of the Echidna is the dog meant, while the name “Aconite” alludes to Aconitus in Pontica on which hillside Cereberus’s cavern was to be found.

The plant was sacred to Hecate, hence its archaic name Hecateis herba, the Dark-mother’s Herb, which is probably also at the base of its title Queen Mother (or Queenmother of Poisons), as Hecate was by medieval times Queen of Witches. Athena used the poison as well, sprinkling it on the head of the impious maiden weaver Arachne to turn her into a spider.

Claudius I, Emperor of Rome, was slain by his own physician who slipped him monkshood. It was so often used for political assassinations that Trajon banned its cultivation altogether. Anyone caught gardening these flowers risked a penalty of death.

It’s use for murder is the subject of the Peter Ellis novel set in medieval England, Monk’s Hood (1981). Brother Cadfael the detective-monk must clear himself of suspicion. The plant is featured in many other fictional murder mysteries, but not all such crimes are fictive. In a series of recent trials infamous in Japan, three women & one man were proven to have collectied millions of yen in their murder-for-insurance ring, the women having prepared for their husbands sweet-bean buns laced with monkshood. The trials ended in 2002, & all four received long prison terms.

It was also useful for suicide, as in the case of the father of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, as well as endless numbers of actual persons. But not all deaths have been intentional homicides or suicides, for Monkshood is sometimes mistaken for fennel or horseradish or other edible plant, as even the species name napellus or “Little Turnip” alludes to its resemblance to something edible. Somewhere around 1840, two Catholic priests arrived to dinner with other guests of the Provost of Dingwall. A servant obtained a radish from the garden for the guests to use as garnish on their meat, in consequence of which three at the table died, including Father Angus Mackenzie, Father James Gordon, & Father Gordon’s grand-nephew.

A final tale belongs here since the species attached to this legend is certainly A. napellus & no other. Monkshood has another old folk-name, St. Dunstan’s Herb, & in portraits of St. Dunstan, tenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, monkshood is often present. Dunstan was said once to have held the devil by the nose with a pair of red-hot tongs, forcing from him an oath to never again tempt the saint. Shortly thereafter Dunstan dreamt of an enormous branching spire of flowers shaped like the cowls of monks and interpretted this as Christianity spreading throughout a future England ruled by Catholic clergy. Source: Phagat’s Garden

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