pierre laszlo

Aconitum lycoctonum (Ranunculaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Aconitum lycoctonum (Ranunculaceae)

This rather tall (50-150 cm) perennial looks unexceptional. A native of the mountain regions of north and middle Europe, predominantly but not exclusively, aconite is found typically in the shade and at moderate altitudes, 1,000-1,800 m. With a slender and hairy stem, the leaves are palmately lobed with four to six deeply cut lobes. Flowers occur in loose and ramified grapes. In Europe, the flowers are of a pale yellow, with petals and sepals of the same color. The upper sepal, helmet-shaped, covers the whole flower. 
This plant has carried multitudinous names, such as dog killer, leopard killer, woman killer, brute killer, wolfsbane, blue rocket, friar’s cap and monkshood — the latter from the looks of the upper sepal. Had he wished to do so, Alfred Hitchcock might have made a movie, using one of those names for a title! 
Wolfsbane — to use one of the most common — is poisonous and it has had a reputation as such from times immemorial. In Roman times, Ovid wrote (Metamorphoses) about the sorceress Medea, Aegeus’s wife, brewing a cup of the poison for his son Theseus,

"For him a bowl of deadly aconite she drugged,
From Colchis brought, and from the jaws distilled."

Greek and Roman hunters of Antiquity indeed sprinkled aconite juice on the tips of their arrows. Within an open wound, the toxin induced pain at the point of entry, followed by cardialgia, anxiety, suffocation and syncope. According to Dioscorides, the term wolfsbane originated because the roots of the plants were mixed with raw flesh and used to kill wolves. In Europe, throughout the centuries, foxes were also dealt with in this manner.
The active substance, the alkaloid aconitine, present in all parts of the plant, was first isolated in 1825 by Dr. Dietrich Pallas (ca. 1768-1840). The lethal dose is about 5 mg for an adult. The symptoms of aconitine poisoning were described from observation of two real-life incidents, with typical British understatement, as "unpleasant and alarming." 
It serves as a chemical defense of the plant against herbivores. Producing the alkaloid  is costly to the plant, not only due to the energy diverted to making it. It is also a deterrent to pollinators. Hence the dilemma best termed, attraction or protection? A related species, Aconitum septentrionale has a high level of aconitine alkaloids in all parts, except the nectar. 
The University of California at Berkeley archeologist Robert Fleming Heizer (1915–1979), while working on his Ph. D., published in 1938 a most interesting conjecture. He traced use of aconite by native hunters, to poison their arrows with, originating in the Himalayas, then extending northeasterly from there to Yezo, Sakhalin and Kurile islands of Kamchatka, further extending across the Aleutian archipelago to Kodiak. In short, this archeological and anthropological cultural trait is consistent with migration of hunter-gatherers from Central Asia to America.