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Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
This highly poisonous plant has a long history stretching from its alleged use in euthanasia in Ancient Greece through to its appearance in the Harry Potter books. Like other species in the genus it rarely, if ever, causes accidental poisoning.
Sources - John Gerard
John Gerard was born in Nantwich, England in 1545. In 1562 he became an apprentice barber-surgeon in London and established his own practice seven years later. He was an eminent member of his profession becoming Master of the Guild of Barber-Surgeons in 1608. (Members of the guild were entitled to call themselves ‘Master’ or ‘Mr.’ and surgeons today are still ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’.)
In the 16th century anyone involved in medicine had to be knowledgeable about plants but Gerard’s interest grew to the point that he took positions as ship surgeon in order to travel and see the plants of other countries. Many of these he brought back to his own garden in Holborn.
By 1577, he was in charge of Lord Burghley’s town and country gardens and went on to manage and create a number of ‘physic’ gardens. In 1596 he published a catalogue of the plants in his garden and, from this, went on to produce his “Herbal or General History of Plants” in 1597. Gerard has been accused of plagiarism as much of his book seems to be a translation of an earlier Flemish work and, in his haste to publish, ‘The Herbal’ contains many errors, later corrected by Thomas Johnson.
His book is a landmark, however, because he dismisses many of the old beliefs which do not stand up to experimental testing. It must be said, however, that he expresses belief in many things which today appear ridiculous. A number of these odd beliefs are referred to in the plant pages.
John Gerard died in London in 1612.
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Meaning of the Name
According to Theophrastus, the name comes from the village of Akonai which was part of the land occupied by the Mariandynoi people. There is no trace of the village today but the area, which is now in Turkey, has a town called Karadeniz Ereğli near to which is a cave which was said to house the entrance to Hades and was guarded by Cerebus.
Other sources suggest the Greek word ‘akónitos’ formed from ‘ak’, ‘pointed’ and kônos, ‘cone’. The suggestion is that the name refers to the pointed leaves though some sources say a pointed cone is an arrow and refers to its use as an arrow poison.
From the Greek ‘lykos’, ‘wolf’ and ‘kteinein’, ‘kill’ based on its common name ‘wolfsbane’.
Common Names and Synonyms
wolfsbane, Lamarck’s wolfsbane, northern wolfsbane, yellow wolfsbane, yellow monkshood
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The principal alkaloids are aconite and aconitine. Of these aconitine is thought to be the key toxin. Ingestion of even a small amount results in severe gastrointestinal upset but it is the effect on the heart, where it causes slowing of the heart rate, which is often fatal.
The poison may be administered by absorption through the skin or open wounds and there are reports of people being unwell after smelling the flowers.
Its distinctive taste makes it unpleasant to eat so accidental poisoning is rare.
John Gerard talks of a Mr. Mahewe who, he believes, may have been poisoned by it whilst riding in Lincolnshire but Thomas Johnson, in his 1633 revision of Gerard's 'Great Herball', says it was more likely to have been Ranunculus flammeus major, spearwort.
It is said that the poisons are quickly absorbed through the skin especially if the skin is broken or it is applied to a sensitive area such as the female genitalia. Marcus Caelius accused Calpurnius Bestia of using it to kill his wives in their sleep. The prosecutor spoke of the defendant’s finger as the murder weapon.
Folklore and Facts
It is often stated that on the island of Ceos, in the Aegean, the elderly and infirm were expected to drink a potion of wolfsbane to free their families of the burden of caring for them. This, however, seems to be yet another error arising from Mrs Grieve's 'A Modern Herbal'. Strabo, the Greek geographer, makes it quite clear that the poison used was hemlock from Conium maculatum.
As the only poison capable of killing a wolf, it was used to poison arrowheads.
It was, sometimes called panther strangler after its ability to kill panthers. Eating human excrement was said to cure a panther of aconite poisoning.
See also Aconitum napellus as many stories overlap with the wolfsbane.