The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Aconitum ferox Wallich ex Seringe

 

Blue Aconite

 

“The man who is struck by an arrow that has been smeared with the seeds of shalmali [Bombax ceiba L.] and vidari [Ipomoea digitata L.], together with mula [Raphanus sativa L.] and vatsanabha [Aconitum ferox] and the blood of the muskrat, will bite ten people, each of which will then bite ten other people in turn.”

 

KAUTILIYA ARTHASHASTRA (14, 1: SUTRA 29)

 

Family

 

Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family); Helleboreae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies

 

Aconitum ferox may be a subspecies or variety of Aconitum napellus. In Tibetan medicine, several forms of Aconitum ferox are distinguished from one another on the basis of their pharmacological properties (Aris 1992, 233*).

Synonyms

 

Aconitum ferox L.

Aconitum napellus var. ferox

Aconitum virorum Don

Delphinium ferox Baill.

Folk Names

 

Aconite, atis, ativish (Nepali, “very poisonous”), ativisha (Sanskrit, “poison”), bachnag (Persian), bachnâg (Hindi), bikh, bis, bis-h, bish (Arabic), black aconite, blue aconite, bong-nag, bong nga, gsang-dzim, Himalayan monkshood, Indian aconite, jádwár, kalakuta, mithavis (Hindi), monk’s hood, nang-dzim, nilo bikh, phyi-dzim, singya, sman-chen (Tibetan, “great medicine”), valsanabhi (Malay), vasanavi (Tamil), vatsamabhah (Sanskrit), vatsanabha, vatsanabhi (Malayalam), visha (Sanskrit, “poison”), wolfbane

History

 

Vedic and later Sanskrit texts indicate that the root of this Aconitum species was already being used as an arrow poison in ancient India in early times (cf. Aconitum spp.). In contrast to their original use, these poison arrows were used not in the hunt but in warfare (Bisset and Mazars 1984, 19). In the Shushrutasamhita, the Ayurvedic writings of Shushruta (ca. 300 C.E.), Aconitum ferox is referred to as “vatsanabha.” Today, Aconitum chasmanthum is usually sold under the name “vatsanabha” (13). In the tenth century, the Persian physician Alheroo described the plant under the name bish. Europeans first became aware of Aconitum ferox in the nineteenth century during journeys to Nepal. During the nineteenth century, there was a thriving trade in the root tubers of Aconitum ferox, which were brought from Lhasa via Le (Mustang) to Ladakh (Laufer 1991, 57).

Distribution

 

Blue aconite is found in Nepal, Kashmir (northern India), Garhwal, Sikkim, and Bhutan at altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 meters (Manandhar 1980, 7*). It is a typical Himalayan plant and has even been observed growing at 3,600 meters (Polunin and Stainton 1985, 5*). It is said to grow at altitudes as high as 4,500 meters (Pabst 1887, 7*).

Cultivation

 

Propagation occurs via seeds, which can be simply strewn about or grown in beds. Blue aconite prefers to grow over a stony or rocky substrate and also thrives in crevices and the hollow spaces between stones.

Appearance

 

This perennial plant produces tuberous roots and can grow up to 1 meter in height. The lower, long-stemmed leaves are pinnate and deeply retuse. Toward the top of the plant, the leaves become smaller and their stalks shorter. The helmet-shaped, blue-violet flowers are located in clusters at the end of the smooth, erect stem. The flower stalks grow directly out of the leaf axils. The fruit is a five-cusped, funnel-shaped capsule that opens at the top. In the Himalayas, blue aconite blooms during the monsoon season (from July to September, or until October in higher elevations). The root tubers, which have a dark brown cortex and are yellowish inside, regenerate annually.

Aconitum ferox is very similar to Aconitum napellus but is somewhat smaller and more stocky. It also bears fewer flowers, and these are spaced farther apart.

Aconitum ferox is easily confused with Aconitum heterophyllum Wall. ex Royle, known as bachnakatis, or prativisa (Bisset and Mazars 1984, 15). However, Aconitum heterophyllum has cordate leaves with serrate edges, whereas Aconitum ferox has the same deeply retuse and pinnate leaves as Aconitum napellus. Blue aconite can also be mistaken for another Himalayan species, Aconitum spicatum (Brühl) Stapf, which bears blue flowers as well (Polunin and Stainton 1985, 6*).

 

The flowers of the blue aconite (Aconitum ferox). Tantrists who follow the left-handed path smoke the herbage and roots of the plant as a potent inebriant.

 

 

Aconite is one of the most dangerous of all poisonous plants. However, like all poisons, it is also a valuable medicine. For this reason, aconite was formerly known as healing poison or poisonous remedy. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)

 

Psychoactive Material

 

—Root tuber (tubera aconiti ferocis, bish root)

—Herbage

Preparation and Dosage

 

When used in Ayurvedic medicine, the tubers are steeped in the milk or urine of sacred cows after harvesting to “purify” them. This removes the potent toxins from the root. Milk is said to more effectively detoxify the tubers (Warrier et al. 1993, 44*).16 The root tuber is ground into a paste for external application to treat neuralgia.

For tantric and psychoactive purposes, of course, the root is not detoxified. It is simply dried, minced, and consumed in smoking mixtures, normally with ganja (flowers of Cannabis indica). The leaves are dried and smoked.

Aconitum ferox is the most poisonous plant of the Himalayas and can very easily prove lethal! As little as 3 to 6 mg of aconitine, corresponding to only a few grams of dried or even fresh plant material, is sufficient to kill an adult.

Ritual Use

 

Among Indian Tantrists is an extreme sect known as the Aghoris. They follow the “left-handed” path, which regards sexuality and drugs as important methods for expanding consciousness. The Aghoris ingest plants associated with Shiva (hemp, Datura metel, opium from Papaver somniferum) and poisons (cobra venom, mercury, arsenic) so that they may experience the divine consciousness of their master. Aghoris produce mixtures of various plants for their large smoking tubes (chilam). One mixture for “advanced” individuals consists of ganja and Aconitum ferox roots (Svoboda 1993, 175).

Shiva is the Hindu god of inebriants and poisons. Myths relate how he personally tried all poisons at the beginning of the world. This caused him to turn blue, as blue as the flowers of blue aconite. Similarly, a Tantrist can assimilate himself with the god by ingesting every poison and surviving (according to the motto “That which does not kill me only makes me stronger”). In another version of this story, the beating of the primeval ocean, or the churning of the milk ocean (samudramathana), not only brought forth the sacred cow but also caused the essences of all poisons to swirl up. Petrified with fear, the gods hurried to Kailash, where Shiva sat in meditation. They bade him help. Shiva took the poison in his hand and drank it. His wife Parvati became afraid for him and squeezed her husband’s throat, which caused the poison to remain there and turned him completely blue. It is for this reason that Shiva is also known as Nilakanta, “blue throat.” By performing this act, Shiva saved all creatures from death by poisoning. But a little of the poison slipped out of his hand and onto the Himalayas. Today, it still flows in the veins of blue aconite and other poisonous plants.

Artifacts

 

Hindu art contains numerous images of Shiva, many of which depict him with a blue skin color. Sometimes only his throat is blue. The Saradatilaka Tantra describes Shiva in his form as a “blue throat”: He shines like a myriad of rising suns and has a glowing crescent moon in his long, matted hair. His four arms are adorned with snakes. He has five heads, each of which has three eyes, and is clad in only a tiger skin and is armed with his trident. It is possible that the plant spirit of Aconitum ferox has the same appearance.

Aconitum ferox, along with other species (including Aconitum napellus), is portrayed on Tibetan medical thangkas (paintings). One leaf of the Tibetan medical tree is dedicated to the plant, and this depicts how the “great medicine” can be used to make a medicinal butter (Aris 1992, 179, 233*).

Medicinal Use

 

In Ayurvedic medicine, the “purified” root tubers are used to treat neuralgia, painful inflammations, coughs, asthma, bronchitis, digestive problems, colic, weak hearts, leprosy, skin afflictions, paralysis, gout, diabetes, fever, and exhaustion (Warrier et al. 1993, 41ff.*).

These and other Himalayan species of aconite (Aconitum heterophyllumAconitum balfourii Stapf; cf. Aconitum spp.) find many uses in Tibetan medicine. The roots are regarded as a remedy for colds and “cold”; the herbage is used to treat ailments resulting from “heat.” In Tibetan medicine, Aconitum ferox is also known as sman-chen, “great medicine”; the crushed roots, mixed with bezoar stones, are used as a universal antidote. The root is also used to treat malignant tumors (Laufer 1991, 57). The great medicine is also esteemed as a remedy for demonic possession (Aris 1992, 77*). In Nepalese folk medicine, blue aconite is used to treat leprosy, cholera, and rheumatism (Manandhar 1980, 7*).

Constituents

 

The entire plant contains the diterpenoid alkaloids aconitine and pseudoaconitine17 (Mehra and Puri 1970). The root tuber contains the greatest concentrations of these constituents and is thus the most dangerous part of the plant (cf. Aconitum napellus).

Effects

 

In Ayurvedic medicine, the root is attributed with sweet, narcotic, sedative, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, nervine, appetite-stimulating, digestion-promoting, stimulant, anaphrodisiac, calming, and antipyretic effects (Warrier et al. 1993, 41*).

The effects of a tantric smoking mixture containing aconite are said to be extreme. Even experienced Tantrists emphatically warn against its use (cf. Aconitum napellus).

Commercial Forms and Regulations

 

The seeds may sometimes be purchased in nurseries.

Literature

 

See also the entries for Aconitum napellusAconitum spp., and witches’ ointments.

 

Bisset, N. G., and G. Mazars. 1984. Arrow poisons in South Asia, part I: Arrow poisons in ancient India. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 12:1–24.

 

Mehra, P. N., and H. S. Puri. 1970. Pharmacognostic investigations on aconites of “ferox” group. Research Bulletin of the Punjab University 21:473–93.

 

Laufer, Heinrich. 1991. Tibetische Medizin. Ulm: Fabri Verlag. (Orig. pub. 1900.)

 

Rau, Wilhelm. 1994. Altindisches Pfeilgift. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

 

Svoboda, Robert E. 1993. Aghora: At the left hand of God. New Delhi: Rupa.

 

Aconitum napellus Linnaeus

 

Monkshood, Blue Rocket

 

Family

 

Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family); Helleboreae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies

 

Monkshood is a polymorphous species with many subspecies and cultivated forms; it is regarded as taxonomically complex (Colombo and Tomè 1993):

Aconitum napellus ssp. compactum (Rchb.) Gayer Aconitum napellus ssp. napellus

Aconitum napellus ssp. neomontanum (Wulfen) Gayer

Aconitum napellus ssp. pyramidale (Mill.) Rouy et Fouc.

Aconitum napellus ssp. tauricum

Aconitum napellus ssp. vulgare Rouy et Fouc.

It is possible that Aconitum ferox may be a synonym or a subspecies or variety of Aconitum napellus (cf. Warrier et al. 1993, 41*).

Synonyms

 

Aconitum compactum (Rchb.) Gayer

Aconitum neomontanum Wulfen

Aconitum pyramidale Mill.

Folk Names

 

Abnehmkraut, aconit, aconite, aconit napel, aconito napello, akonit, akoniton, altweiberkappe, apolloniabraut, apolloniakraut,18 apolloniawurz, arche noah, blauelsterkraut, blauer akonit, blaukappen, blaumützen, blue aconite, blue rocket, casque-de-Jupiter (cap of Jupiter), eisenhut, eisenhütlein, eisenkappe, eliaswagen, eysenhütlein, fischerkiep, fliegenkraut, franzosenkapp, fuchs-kraut, fuchsschwanz, fuchswurz, giftkraut, goats-bane, goekschl, groß eysenhütlein, gupfhauben, hamburger mützen, härrgottslotscha, helm, helm-blume, herrgottslatsche, herrnhut, heuhütli, hex, holtschoe, hummelkraut, isenhübli, jakobsleiter, judenkappe, jungfernschuh, kalessen, kappenblume, kapuzinerchäppli, kapuzinerkappe, königsblume, kutscherblume, marienscheusäken, mönchskappe, mönchswurz, monkshood, münchskapffen, muttergottesschühlein, napellus major, narrenkappe, noarnkopp, nonnenhaube, Odins hut, pantöffelchen, pantöffelken, papucha, paterskappe, pfaffenhütchen, pferdchen, poutsche, ra-duggam’dzim-pa (Tibetan), ranunculus montana, reiterkapp, reiter-zu-pferd, rössel, satanskraut, schawwerhaube, schlotfegerskappen, schneppekapp, steinkraut, sturmhut, tauben, taubenschnabel, teufelswurz, thora quasi phtora interitus (Latin, “doom”), totenblume, trollhat (Nordic, “troll’s cap”), tübeli, tuifelkappe, venuskutschen, venuswägelchen, venuswagen, wolfgift, wolfkraut, wolfskraut, wolfswurz, würgling, ziegenschuh, ziegentod

History

 

Theophrastus (ca. 370–287 B.C.E.) already provided a very precise description of the plant and its effects and origin. In ancient times, monks-hood, or aconite, was a feared poison associated with the legendary Colchian “witch” Medea (who was probably a Scythian shaman; cf. Cannabis ruderalis) and the gloomy underworld. Like hen-bane (Hyoscyamus albus), the plant was said to have sprung from the slaver of Cerberus, the hound of hell, and both plants were known as apollinaris (“Apollo’s plant”). Another legend states that monkshood rose from the blood of Prometheus, which dripped onto the rocks whenever the eagle came and ate his liver (Gallwitz 1992, 111).

Monkshood was an important “battle drug” in Roman politics. Emperor Claudius died in 54 C.E. from aconite poisoning (Schöpf 1986, 77*).19 The ancient Germans may have used the plant in their magical rituals, such as when the Berserkers were transformed into wolves. In the fourteenth century, Konrad von Megenberg described monks-hood and its poisonous effects in his Buch der Natur [Book of Nature]. Monkshood was and still is regarded as the most poisonous and most dangerous plant in Europe (Roth et al. 1994, 89*).

 

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) was once a dreaded toxic and witches’ plant. Today, it is a popular garden ornamental. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)

 

Distribution

 

Monkshood occurs from Italy to Ireland and from Spain to the Himalayas. It is often found in subalpine zones. It belongs to the typical flora of the Alps and is (still) common in Switzerland.

Cultivation

 

Monkshood can be propagated by seeds or from separated tubers. Handling fresh root tubers can have dangerous toxic effects! The seeds are either sown in the spring by pressing them directly into the ground or raised in seedbeds. Monkshood prefers nutrient-rich soils and good, humus-rich earth. It also thrives in moist soils.

Appearance

 

This perennial herbaceous plant can grow as tall as 150 cm. The palmate leaves are deeply divided into five to seven lobes. The luxuriant, dark blue, helmet-shaped flowers form at the end of the stalk (terminal racemes). The sepal has the exact shape of a bumblebee, and this insect is also the plant’s most important (and perhaps even its only) pollinator. The follicular fruits contain multiple seeds. The blooming period is from June to August. The plant develops a new tuberous root each year, while the root from the previous year dies.

Aconitum napellus can be very easily confused with Aconitum ferox and many other Aconitum species (Aconitum spp.). This does not present a problem from a pharmacological perspective, as most Aconitum species contain very similar active constituents. Some individuals have also confused monkshood with larkspur (Delphinium spp.; cf. Delphinium consolida).

Psychoactive Material

 

—Root (tubera aconiti, radix aconiti, aconiti tuber)

—Herbage (herba aconiti, aconiti herba)

 

Corresponding to the plant’s growth cycle, the drug should not be stored and used for periods in excess of one year (Roth et al. 1994, 88*).

Preparation and Dosage

 

The dried herbage can be smoked (see Aconitum ferox). However, no information is available concerning dosage. People must be cautioned against improper use of this plant. Even harvesting the leaves can cause the active constituents to enter the body and produce unintentional symptoms of poisoning (Roth et al. 1994, 89*). As little as 3 to 6 mg of aconitine, which often corresponds to only a few grams of dried or even fresh plant material, can be lethal for adults. Ingested orally, as little as 0.2 mg of aconitine can produce toxic symptoms. Tinctures were formerly used to treat migraine headaches and neuralgia. Up to five drops per day were ingested (Vonarburg 1997a, 65).

The roots were purportedly used in the manufacture of witches’ ointments. They were also added to wine (cf. Vitis vinifera), which was drunk both for healing and for inebriating purposes (Pahlow 1993, 117*).

Although the plant is considered extremely toxic, children in Iceland have been reported to eat the flowers because of their honeylike sweetness (Olafsson and Ingolfsdottir 1994).

 

In ancient times, monkshood (Aconitum napellus) was feared as a poison; in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, it was purportedly used in the manufacture of witches’ and flying ointments.

 

Ritual Use

 

In ancient times, monkshood was definitely used as a ritual poison:

 

Bent on his destruction, Medea mixed in a cup a poison, which she had brought long ago from the Scythian shores. This poison, they say, came from the mouth of the Echidnean dog. There is a cavern with a dark, yawning throat and a way down-sloping, along which Hercules, the hero of Tiryns, dragged Cerberus with chains wrought of adamant, while the great dog fought and turned away his eyes from the bright light of day. He, goaded on to mad frenzy, filled all the air with his threefold howls, and sprinkled the green fields with white foam. Men think that these flecks of foam grew; and, drawing nourishment from the rich, rank soil, they gained power to hurt; and because they spring up and flourish on hard rocks, the country folk call them aconite. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.406ff.)

 

Monkshood was presumably also used in other Scythian preparations and in shamanic-magical rituals, e.g., to transform oneself into a wolf. It may already have been used in antiquity to prepare flying ointments. Since the early modern period, monkshood has been one of the chief ingredients in witches’ ointments. Many of its folk names suggest that the plant was used for both ritual and psychoactive purposes: hut des Jupiter (hat of Jupiter), venuswagen(Venus’s wagon), wolfskraut (wolf’s plant), hut des trolls (hat of the troll), Odins hut (Odin’s hat), hex (witch), et cetera.

Artifacts

 

In Christian art, the plant appears in paintings as a symbol of death (e.g., in Maria Lactans by the Master of Flémalle and in The Lamentation of Christ) (Gallwitz 1992, 113f.). In Europe, the plant was used as a symbol of the venomousness of nature. Monkshood is portrayed on Tibetan medicine thangkas alongside Aconitum ferox and Aconitum spp. (Aris 1992, 233*).

Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932), an author who was experienced in alchemy and the occult and who wrote about numerous psychoactive plants (cf. Cannabis indicaLophophora williamsiiVeratrum albumAmanita muscaria), composed a very insightful story about monkshood, “Der Kardinal Napellus” [Cardinal Napellus]. In this story, he describes a sect “known as the ‘blue brothers,’ the followers of which have themselves buried alive when they sense that they are approaching their end.” The founder of the order, Cardinal Napellus, transformed himself into the first monkshood plant after his death. All of the plants were said to be derived from him. The sign of the order, of course, is the flower of Aconitum napellus, and a field of aconite grows in the cloister garden. The novitiates start the plants when they are accepted into the order, and they baptize these with blood and sprinkle them with blood shed from the wounds produced by flagellation. “The symbolic meaning of this strange ceremony of blood christening is that the person should magically plant his soul in the garden of paradise and nourish its growth with the blood of his desires.” The brothers in the order use the plant in a psychoactive manner: “When the flowers withered in the fall, we collected their poisonous seeds, which resemble small human hearts. In the secret tradition of the blue brothers, these represent the ‘mustard seed’ of faith, of which it is written that he who has it can move mountains, and we ate of these. Just as their terrible poison changes the heart and brings a person into a condition between life and death, so shall the essence of faith transform our blood—into miraculous power in the hours between the gnawing pain of death and ecstatic rapture” (Meyrink 1984). The story is reminiscent of the tantric use of Aconitum ferox.

Medicinal Use

 

Because it has long been feared as a potent poison, monkshood never attained any great significance in folk medicine. In Western phytotherapy, tinctures of monkshood are used externally to ease the pains of gout, sciatica, and neuralgia and to treat feverish colds in their onset. They are less frequently used internally (Pahlow 1993, 116*).

In homeopathy, Aconitum napellus hom. is used in dilutions of D3 and greater in accordance with the medical descriptions to treat nervous and psychic ailments, e.g., as a result of anger, fright, agitation, or neuralgia (Pahlow 1993, 116*; Roth et al. 1994, 89*). Hahnemann had high praise for the agent, for “its powers to help are miraculous” (Buchmann 1983, 29*). It is still used for numerous purposes today (Vonarburg 1997a, 1997b).

Constituents

 

The entire plant contains the alkaloid aconitine (= acetylbenzoylaconine) and aconitine acid. The highest concentrations are in the root, which is thus the most dangerous part of the plant. The root tubers contain large amounts of diterpenoid alkaloids of the so-called aconitine type (0.3–2.0%). The structures of some of these have not yet been determined (Bugatti et al. 1992). Aconitine is the primary alkaloid; mesaconitine, hypaconitine, napelline, and N-diethylaconitine are also present. In some subspecies, the primary alkaloid is mesaconitine (Olafsson and Ingolfsdottir, 1994). Aconitine is also present in all the other parts of the plant, although typically in only low concentrations. Aconitine has even been detected in the nectaries. As a result, it may be possible to produce a psychoactive honey from the plant.

 

“So is the man who has given aconite to three uncles to ride by on swaying feathers and to look down on us from there? Keep quiet when he comes by; if you so much as say ‘That’s the man who . . .’ you’ll be treated as if you’d accused him in court.”

 

JUVENAL SATIRES

 

(I.158–61)

 

“Monkshood is associated with the Nordic god Odin and the goddess Hel. Earlier tales referred to it as ‘Odin’s helm,’ [and] it was supposedly used as an ingredient in ‘lycoanthropic transformation ointments.’”

 

MAGISTER BOTANICUS

 

MAGISCHES KREUTHERKOMPENDIUM [COMPENDIUM OF MAGICAL HERBS]

 

(1995, 194*)

 

“It is established that of all poisons the quickest to act is aconite, and that death occurs on the same day if the genitals of a female creature are but touched by it. . . . Fable has it that aconite sprang out of the foam of the dog Cerberus when Hercules dragged him from the underworld, and that this is why it grows around Heraclea in Pontus, where is pointed out the entrance to the underworld used by Hercules. Yet even aconite the ancients have turned to the benefit of human health, by finding out by experience that administered in warm wine it neutralizes the sting of scorpions. It is its nature to kill a human being unless in that being it finds something else to destroy. Against this alone it struggles, regarding it as more pressing than the find. What a marvel! Although by themselves both are deadly, yet the two poisons in a human being perish together so that the human survives.”

 

PLINY

 

NATURAL HISTORY

 

(27.4f.)

 

 

Aconitine

 

 

Mesaconitine

 

Effects

 

When applied to the skin, monkshood is said to provoke sensations of tingling and hallucinations. Because of this, monkshood was purported to have been an important ingredient in witches’ ointments. It is said to produce the sensation of wearing a garment made of fur or feathers. In the Rhineland, it is said that “[s]imply smelling the plant will make the nose swell up” (Gallwitz 1992, 113). Monkshood has a strong stimulating or inebriating effect upon horses. They become “foamy,” that is, fiery; for this reason, horse dealers at one time fed their animals monkshood before offering them for sale.

The description of the course of effects of monkshood poisoning is not exactly enticing: “The longer the time that the alkaloid and the drug are in contact with the mouth, the more pronounced will the local, sensory nerve effects in the mouth and throat be observable following acute aconitine or aconite poisoning. The tingling and burning may be followed by a loss of speech and a sensation of paralysis in the tongue and in the area around the mouth, so that speaking becomes difficult. When absorbed, feelings of tingling and formication [the sensation of being crawled upon by insects] in the fingers, hands, and feet very characteristically soon appear, sometimes with twitching of the face, followed by paralysis of the facial muscles. The person who has been poisoned is also disturbed by an unbearable sensation of coldness (the feeling of ‘ice water in the veins’) with hypothermia, caused by stimulation of the cold centers. This is followed by numbness, symptoms of paralysis in the arms and legs, and difficulties in breathing. Seeing green, dizziness, buzzing in the ears, and trigeminal pain have also been observed. Nausea and vomiting can occur, but can also be absent, as can diarrhea and increased urination. Respiratory difficulties and especially peculiar heart disturbances . . . can result in loss of consciousness and death due to heart or breathing problems. But consciousness may also be retained until death, which under these circumstances can occur within in the first hour” (Fühner 1943, 217f.*).

Commercial Forms and Regulations

 

In Europe, the wild plant—like all Aconitum species—is protected (Roth et al. 1994, 89*). The seeds of various subspecies, varieties, and cultivars are available in nurseries.

Literature

 

See also the entries for Aconitum feroxAconitum spp., and witches’ ointments.

 

Bauerreiss, Erwin. 1994. Blauer Eisenhut. Bad Windsheim: Wurzel-Verlag.

 

Bugatti, C., M. L. Colombo, and F. Tomè. 1992. Extraction and purification of lipolalkaloids from Aconitum napellus roots and leaves. Planta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A695.

 

Colombo, M. L., and F. Tomè. 1993. Nuclear DNA amount and aconitine content in Aconitum napellus subspecies. Planta Medica 59 suppl.: A696.

 

Deltgen, Florian, and Hans Gerd Kauer. 1973. The Claudius case. Botanical Museum Leaflets 23 (5): 213–44.

 

Gallwitz, Esther. 1992. Kleiner Kräutergarten: Kräuter und Blumen bei den Alten Meistern im Städel. Frankfurt/M.: Insel TB.

 

Meyrink, Gustav. 1994. Der Kardinal Napellus. In Fledermäuse, 1:101–13. Berlin: Moewig.

 

Olafsson, Kjartan, and Kristin Ingolfsdottir. 1994. Aconitine in nectaries and other organs from Icelandic populations of Aconitum napellus ssp. vulgare. Planta Medica 60:285–86.

 

Vonarburg, Bruno. 1997a. Blauer Eisenhut (1. Teil). Natürlich 17 (1): 64–67.

 

———. 1997b. Blauer Eisenhut (2. Teil). Natürlich 17 (2): 64–67.

 

Wasson, R. Gordon. 1972. The death of Claudius or mushrooms for murderers. Botanical Museum Leaflets 23 (3): 101–28.

 

Aconitum spp.

 

Aconite Species

 

Family

 

Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family); Helleboreae Tribe

Many Aconite species have worldwide ethno-botanical significance as medicines, psychoactive products, and arrow poisons.

Uses as Medicine

 

The following species of aconites (chuan wu tou) are used in traditional Chinese medicine and in Japanese kampo medicine (as cited in Wee and Keng 1992, 16f.*; Schneebeli-Graf 1992, 55*):

Aconitum carmichaelii Debeaux (chuan wu tou or bushi); also: var. wilsonii (Stapf ex Moltet) Munz (tsao wu touAconitum chinense Sieb. et Zucc.

Aconitum hemsleyanum E. Pritz

Aconitum transsectum Diels

Aconitum vulparia Rchb. ex Spreng. [syn. Aconitum lycoctonum auct. non. L.]

Only the dried rhizomes are used; they lose their potent toxicity during the drying process. In traditional Chinese medicine, aconite roots are characterized as stimulating, cardiotonic, anal-gesic, narcotic, and locally anesthetic. They stimulate the yang energy and are used for all yang ailments. The dosage lies between 3 and 8 g (Reid 1988, 115*).

The species Aconitum carmichaelii is common throughout southern China. The folk medicine of the region uses its roots for headaches, paralysis of one side of the body (hemiplegia), overheating of the body, rheumatism, arthritis, contusions, bruises, and broken bones. Pharmacological studies in China have demonstrated that this drug stimulates the body’s own immune system. However, it has not yet been possible to isolate from the root a substance that might be responsible for these effects. It is possible that there may be a synergistic effect of several or even all of the active constituents (Chang et al. 1994). The Chinese medicinal drug (fu tzu) has the highest concentration of alkaloids (Bisset 1981).

In Japanese kampo medicine, which is based on Chinese herbalism, the roots of the species Aconitum carmichaelii are known as bushi and are used for weak digestion (cf. Murayama and Hikino 1984). Pharmacological investigations have determined that the so-called aconitans A, B, C, and D have hypoglycemic effects, i.e., they lower blood sugar levels (Hikino et al. 1989, 1983).

Psychoactive Products

 

Aconite (Aconitum napellus) is said to have been an important ingredient in witches’ ointmentsAconitum ferox, a species found throughout the Himalayas, is a component of tantric smoking mixtures with drastic effects. Some Chinese species, the identity of which are unfortunately uncertain, but whose root drugs are known by the name “fu tzu” (including Aconitum carmichaelii), provided one of the main ingredients in han-shih powder.

 

The Asian species Aconitum carmichaelii is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Its roots were once used to produce elixirs for prolonging life.

 

Many Taoist elixirs of immortality contain large quantities of aconite, along with ominous fungi (Psilocybe spp.), arsenic, mercury, hemp (Cannabis sativa), and Digitalis spp. (cf. Digitalis purpurea) (Cooper 1984, 54*).

Use as Arrow Poison

 

Aconitum was used as an arrow poison in ancient Europe and in Asia and North America (Alaska) (Bisset 1989). In ancient China, the most important source of arrow poison was the root of Aconitum carmichaelii (wu toufu tzutsao wu) (Bisset 1979, 1981). Many northern Asian hunting peoples used the toxic root tubers of the following species of aconite to make their arrow poisons:

Aconitum delphinifolium DC.ssp. chamissonianum (Reichb.) ssp. paradoxum (Reichb.) Hult.

Aconitum fischeri Reichb.

Aconitum japonicum Thunb.

Aconitum kamtschaticum Reichb.

Aconitum maximum Pall. ex DC.

Aconitum napellus Thunb. non L.

Aconitum sachalinense Fr. Schmidt

Aconitum subcuneatum Nakai

Aconitum yezoense Nakai

 

Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia L.; Liliaceae), once regarded as a poisonous plant but apparently only slightly toxic, was formerly known as dollwurz (crazy plant). It was included among the aconite plants under the name Aconitum pardalianches. Because the folk name dollwurz was primarily used to refer to the root of the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and obviously refers to its hallucinogenic effects, it is possible that herb Paris may be a psychoactive plant that has been forgotten. (Woodcut from Fuchs, Läebliche abbildung und contrafaytung aller kreüter, 1545)

 

 

White monkshood (Aconitum septentrionale).

 

The harvesting of the roots is often accompanied by magical rites. The arrow poisons are usually produced using other substances as well. The Ainu, the original inhabitants of Japan, combined the principal ingredient with the leaves of Artemisia vulgaris, the toxin of the Japanese puffer fish (Dasyatis akajei Müller et Henle), and even Nicotiana tabacum (Bisset 1976). The notorious fugu fish provided an additional ingredient for an especially powerful arrow poison (Bisset 1976, 91; cf. zombie poison). The manner in which the Ainu tested whether the poison was usable and potent enough provides an interesting fact for explaining the effects of Aconitum in witches’ ointments. They made a small cut in the thenar below the thumb and held a freshly cut root tuber against this. The poison caused the thumb to become numb and (temporarily) paralyzed. An experienced poison maker could evaluate the effectiveness of the root by the duration of its effects (Bisset 1976, 91).

Constituents

 

Most aconite species contain the very toxic aconitine alkaloids as well as the slightly toxic alkamines. Those species that are used for medicinal purposes have higher amounts of alkamines, whereas the species used to produce arrow poisons contain higher amounts of aconitines (Bisset 1976).

In China, the roots of feng-feng, or the plant Siler divaricatum (Turcz.) Benth. et Hook. f. (Umbelliferae), were once used as an antidote for aconite poisoning. But it has been said that the root of this plant “produces madness” (Schultes and Hofmann 1992, 56*). Although it has sometimes been claimed that Siler divaricatum is psychoactive, there is no evidence supporting this assertion.

 

This ancient Chinese representation of various aconite species is from the Ch’ung-hsiu cheng-ho pen-ts’ao.

 

Literature

 

See also the entries for Aconitum feroxAconitum napellus, and witches’ ointments.

 

Bisset, N. G. 1976. Hunting poisons of the North Pacific region. Lloydia 39 (2/3): 87–124. (Includes a very detailed bibliography.)

 

———. 1979. Arrow poisons in China. Part I. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1:325–84.

 

———. 1981. Arrow poisons in China. Part II: Aconitum—botany, chemistry, and pharmacology. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4 (3): 247–336.

 

———. 1989. Arrow and dart poisons. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 25:1–41.

 

Chang, Jan-Gowth, Pei-Pei Shih, Chih-Peng Chang, Jan-Yi Chang, Fang-Yu Wang, and Jerming Tseng. 1994. The stimulating effect of radix aconiti extract on cytokines secretion by human mononuclear cells. Planta Medica 60:576–78.

 

Hikino, Hiroshi, Masako Kobayashi, Yukata Suzuki, and Chohachi Konno. 1989. Mechanisms of hypoglycemic activity of aconitan A, a glycan from Aconitum carmichaelii roots. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 25:295–304.

 

Hikino, Hiroshi, Hiroshi Takata, and Chohachi Konno. 1983. Anabolic principles of Aconitum roots. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7:277–86.

 

Murayama, Mitsuo, and Hiroshi Hikino. 1984. Stimulating actions on ribonucleic acid biosynthesis of aconitines, diterpenic alkaloids of Aconitum roots. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 12:25–33.

 

Murayama, M., T. Mori, H. Bando, and T. Amiya. 1991. Studies on the constituents of Aconitum species. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 35 (2): 159–64.

 

Rätsch, Christian. 1996. Das ‘Heilgift’ Aconit. Dao 4/96:68.

 

“Arrows are prepared with the juice of aconite. They very quickly kill that which they hit.”

 

AVICENNA CANON MEDIC

 

(1608)