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What Is Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane?

 
By Ulla Rothschuh Osorio, Biologist. June 21, 2023
What Is Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane?

Monkshood or Wolf's Bane, scientifically known as Aconitum, is a plant that captivates with its alluring beauty, but lurking beneath its enchanting exterior lies a potent danger. This plant stands out as one of the most dangerous in Europe due to its highly toxic nature. Monkshood contains a range of alkaloids, with aconitine being the principal and most notorious one. It's important to exercise extreme caution when encountering monkshood to avoid any accidental exposure or consumption, as even a small amount can prove fatal.

The following article from thedailyECO explains what Monkshood or Wolf's Bane is, shedding light on its inherent dangers and providing valuable guidance on what to do in case of exposure.

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What is monkshood or wolf's bane?

Aconitum, also known as aconite, monkshood, wolfsbane, leopard's bane, devil's helmet or blue rocket, is a genus of over 300 species of flowering plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae.

Monkshood is a highly poisonous flowering plant renowned for its striking beauty and is characterized by tall herbaceous stems that can reach up to one meter in height. The plant produces flowers in various colors, including blue, purple, white, and yellow.

The name "wolf's bane" stems from its historical use in Europe as a means to poison wolves and other predatory animals.

There are over 300 known species, each with its own unique characteristics and distribution patterns. Some well-known species include:

  • Aconitum napellus: also known as monkshood, aconite, Venus' chariot or wolfsbane.

  • Aconitum vulparia: also known as yellow monkshood.

  • Aconitum lycoctonum: also knwon as yellow wolfsbane or northern wolfsbane.

  • Aconitum alpinum: also known as alpine monkshood or alpine aconite.

The plant is primarily distributed across the mountainous regions of the Northern Hemisphere. This vast geographical range encompasses various countries and diverse landscapes, where monkshood thrives in specific ecological niches. In Europe, monkshood species can be found in regions such as the Alps, Carpathians, Pyrenees, and Scandinavia.

What Is Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane? - What is monkshood or wolf's bane?

How to identify the monkshood plant?

The monkshood plant is a tall herbaceous species that displays enchanting blue, purple, white, or yellow flowers. However, its resemblance to other plants, such as angelica (Angelica razulii) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), can sometimes lead to confusion.

Given its poisonous nature, accurately distinguishing monkshood from visually similar plants becomes crucial for safety reasons. Mistaking monkshood for these other plants can have severe consequences, as monkshood contains potent toxins that can pose significant health risks if ingested or even touched.

  • Flower structure: monkshood or wolf's bane has five sepals, with the upper one forming a hood-shaped structure that covers the petals. The color in the inflorescence is primarily due to these modified sepals, while the actual flowers are small and located inside the sepals.

  • Petals and stamens: beneath the sepals, you will find 2 to 10 petals, and inside them, there are dark stamens.

  • Leaf characteristics: the leaves are palmate, meaning they have lobes that radiate from a central point, similar to celery leaves. However, monkshood leaves are more finely divided and branched compared to angelica leaves.

  • Floral stem: the flowers of monkshood appear on a floral stem, typically in a terminal spike-like arrangement.

  • Flower colors: the flowers are not limited to the popular blue or purple shades. They can also be white or yellow, so relying solely on color for identification may lead to mistakes.

  • Growth habit: the plant grows in basal rosettes, similar to angelica. However, angelica produces white flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters (umbels), while monkshood flowers are arranged in clusters or spikes.

For more information on the various leaf types and their functions, do not miss this other article that delves into leaf anatomy, diagrams, and their specific roles.

What Is Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane? - How to identify the monkshood plant?

Monkshood poison

Monkshood or wolf's bane, despite its striking beauty, is indeed an exceptionally dangerous plant and is often regarded as the most poisonous plant in Europe.

The high toxicity of monkshood stems from the presence of various diterpenoid alkaloids, with the primary one being aconitine. These alkaloids have a profound impact on the nervous system, leading to severe consequences if ingested or even touched.

Aconitine, the principal alkaloid found in monkshood, specifically targets the alpha subunit of sodium channels at the cellular level. It binds to these channels, causing their inactivation and perpetually keeping them open. This disruption of the normal functioning of sodium channels has devastating effects on the body, ultimately leading to its failure.

The venom acts both internally and externally. It can be rapidly absorbed through the mucous membranes, making even simple contact with the plant potentially dangerous.

Exposure to monkshood venom results in a range of severe symptoms. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Heart rhythm abnormalities
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Paralysis
  • Respiratory failure

Given the potency of its venom, it is crucial to exercise utmost care and avoid any contact or manipulation of the plant, including rubbing or touching its parts.

Due to the extreme toxicity of monkshood and the potential for life-threatening consequences, it is strongly advised to refrain from interacting with this plant unless under the guidance of trained professionals. Appreciating its allure from a safe distance is the best approach to ensure your well-being and avoid the risks associated with this highly poisonous species.

You might be interested in this other article, where we explore the most deadly poisonous caterpillars in the world.

Monkshood poisoning and treatment

Absorbing the venom of monkshood through the skin or ingesting the plant can have severe consequences on health. The effects of the venom manifest in various symptoms, including dizziness, vomiting, a low pulse, and the development of a bluish discoloration on the hands and feet. Even a small amount of monkshood can be highly toxic, with just 2 milligrams capable of causing heart poisoning, and 5 milligrams considered a lethal dose.

If someone has come into contact with or consumed monkshood and begins to experience symptoms, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention.

Contacting the emergency number in your area is essential, and depending on the location, it may be necessary to involve mountain rescue services or arrange for transportation to a medical facility. Treatment should always be administered by medical professionals with expertise in managing plant poisonings.

Unfortunately, there is no specific antidote available for monkshood poisoning.

The treatment primarily focuses on managing the symptoms and preventing further absorption of the toxins.

Medical interventions may involve gastric lavage (washing out the stomach), administration of activated charcoal to bind the toxins, and supportive care to address the patient's condition. The first 24 hours following exposure are critical in determining the patient's chances of survival.

Medicinal uses of monkshood

Monkshood, despite its high toxicity, has a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as well as in Indian and Japanese medicine. In recent years, its popularity has been increasing in Europe as well.

In traditional medicinal practices, toxic or poisonous substances can be utilized for their therapeutic properties. However, it is crucial that the plant undergoes processing to convert it into less toxic derivatives.

In fact, only these processed derivatives, which must not exceed 0.15% of alkaloid content, are permitted for consumption by the Chinese Administration of Medical Products.

The root of the plant, which contains high levels of alkaloids, is used for various medicinal purposes:

  • Pain relief
  • Anti-arthritic and anti-rheumatic effects
  • Treatment of gastroenteritis
  • Anti-diarrheal properties
  • Anti-asthmatic effects
  • Regulation of the endocrine system

In TCM, the recommended therapeutic dosage of monkshood is 0.25 milligrams. Interestingly, a highly toxic alkaloid called aconitine derived from monkshood is even used in Western medicine for the treatment of arrhythmia and facial neuralgia. Additionally, napelin, another alkaloid obtained from monkshood, is used in detoxification treatments for morphine addicts and is administered through injections.

Despite the beneficial properties associated with the aconite root, it is essential to emphasize that it should never be used on its own or self-medicated. Only experienced experts with extensive knowledge of this plant and its processing into less toxic forms can safely use and prescribe it. The risks associated with its use are considerable. Whenever possible, it is advisable to explore other safer alternatives for the mentioned therapeutic purposes.

It is crucial to exercise caution and consult qualified healthcare professionals or practitioners well-versed in traditional medicinal practices before considering the use of monkshood or its derivatives.

You may find interest in another article we have prepared, which delves into the extensive range of medicinal properties attributed to Buddleja globosa, also known as matico.

If you want to read similar articles to What Is Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane?, we recommend you visit our Facts about nature category.

Bibliography
  • Ameri, A. (1998). The effects of Aconitum alkaloids on the central nervous system . Progress in neurobiology , 56 (2), 211-235.
  • Singhuber, J., Zhu, M., Prinz, S., & Kopp, B. (2009 ). Aconitum in traditional Chinese medicine—a valuable drug or an unpredictable risk? . Journal of ethnopharmacology, 126(1), 18-30.
  • Flaguer, JG (2006). Aragonese mythical flora. Aragonese nature: magazine of the Society of Friends of the Paleontological Museum of the University of Zaragoza , (16), 70-77.

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