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Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite

Summary

An excellent example of the confusion which common names can cause, this, relatively, innocent first flower of spring is, sometimes, accused of being as deadly as plants in the Aconitum genus.

Blog Entries

Read more about Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite, in these blog entries (most recent first);
How the name aconite was given to this plant

Family

Ranunculaceae

Meaning of the Name

Eranthis
From the Greek 'er' for spring plus 'anthis' for flower.

hyemalis
belonging to winter, 'hyems' 

Common Names and Synonyms

winter aconite, aconite

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

As a member of the Ranunculaceae family, it is expected to be poisonous but there is no consensus over the poisonous component(s). Protoanemonin is present in many genera in the family but has not be isolated from Eranthis.

Ingestion of very large quantities might produce stomach upset but the plant does not appear on the HTA list of potentially hazardous plants.

Incidents

There are no reported cases of any creature, human or otherwise, being poisoned by Eranthis hyemalis.

Folklore and Facts

The following paragraph, which was in the original version of this page, is wrong but, as it turns out, only partly.

There is no clear reason for naming this plant 'aconite'. It is just possible that it results from confusion with the yellow-flowering Aconitum anthora.

I'm grateful to Dr. Henry Oakeley, an expert on the history of plant use for medicinal purposes, for explaining that plants were grouped together purely on the appearance of the leaves. The leaves of Eranthis hyemalis are similar to those of the Aconitum genus and, ignoring the difference in height and flowers, this was enough for it to be classed as an aconite. So, there was a reason for the overlapping names and it was based on physical similarity but of the leaves and not the yellow flowers of the anthora species.

Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite    Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Eranthis hyemalis on the left with foliage of Aconitum napellus on the right.

I should have looked at Gerard's herbal because he calls this plant Aconitum hyemale, Winter Woolfes-bane.

It may be, and this is purely speculation, that this is an extension of the Doctrine of Signatures. If a plant looked like the condition it cured, then plants looking alike would cure the same condition and must, by that logic, be related to each other.

Some sources, especially online and including some prominent reference sites, recite the story of Cerebus and his spit in relation to this plant and describe it as extremely poisonous and claim it was used to poison arrows.

The CD-ROM produced by Kew Gardens and the Medical Toxicology Unit at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital states that there are no reported cases of poisoning and says that no conclusive analysis of the plant is available.

IMPORTANT NOTE

The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.

 

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A to Z Links

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree