Monkshood: Facts, Fictions, and History

Botanical Classification:


Vascular Plants
Seed Plants
Flowering Plants


Buttercup Family
Aconitum L.

Appearence and Physical and Chemical Properties:

Monkshood is a perennial plant that grows to about three feet at full maturity, producing glossy leaves and dark blue pedals. While the dark blue colored flowers are the most commonly found monkshood flowers, the flowers can aslo be found in colors of white, purple, yellow, and pink. The pedals of the flower are actually cloaked within the sepals of the flower. As a result, the form of the sepals resemble a hood-like shape, which is where the common name
monkshood derived from. The shaping of the sepals and flowers, as well as their vibrant colors are particuarly important, for they are known to be extremely attractive to bees. Monkshood are quite dependent on bees for their pollination, as bees are known to be their main, and possibly only, pollinator. In the video, you can see how the bee visits multiple flowers on the monkshood, and see how well the bee fits into each individual flower. This video provides a great visual example of how the monkshood evolved its pedals to be as attractive as it possibly could for bees.
Monkshood do produce fruits; the fruits have a fleur de lis-like shape, complete with sharp looking spikes protruding from them

Despite all their beauty, monkshoods have a dark side. Monkshoods contain the alkaloid aconitine, which is extremely poisonous. In fact, the amount of this poison found within the plant is of such a high quantity that it makes the entire plant toxic. This is particularly dangerous given monkshoods' popularity among gardeners because of its beautiful flowers. The website, a site dedicated to give aspiring gardeners tips for growing certain plants, warns about the high toxic potency of monkshood: "Monkshood contains the chemical aconitine, which is one of the most toxic plant compounds known. Should only be used by qualified practitioners as all parts are extremely toxic. It is illegal to grow in some countries." Gardeners should follow the instructions of that warning carefully, for aconitine chemical is so potent in a monkshood plant that even skin contact can cause a temporary numbness. If held long enough without proper protection, one can absorb the toxic alkaloid. The properties of aconitine are dangerous enough that absorption or ingestion can cause paralysis.
Chemical Compound of Aconitine

Aside from the danger involved for mere contact with the plant, there is another danger concerning the plants roots. All of monkshood is poisonous, which makes the roots of monkhood especially dangerous for one, very important reason. While not bearing an exact resemblance, the roots of monkshood look similar to the roots of horseraddish, which is popularly consumed. Again, the resemblance of the roots is not identical, but one can see how a quick glance could easily mistake these two different roots.
Monkshood Root
Monkshood Root
Horseraddish Root

One BIG Happy Family:

Monkshood is a Ranunculaceae, meaning a member of the buttercup family.
Ranunculus aquatilis, better known as the Water Buttercup
According to the Plants Database website, there are twenty-five genera and 580 taxa over all in the Ranunculaceae. Despite being members of the same family, many buttercups look completely different from one another. Compare the monkshood photos above to the more commonly known buttercups here. These t
Trollius laxus, also known as the Globeflower
wo plants look completely unrelated, but there are some very specific ways one can tell their relation. Most, though not all, buttercups can be identified by the unique pattern of multiple, simple pistils at the center of the flower. This is uncommon for most plants, as they normally only have one. Some members of the rose family also have multiple pistils. However, on buttercups, the pistils are usually hooked, meaning they have a little curve to them, as can be seen in the monkshood and globeflower photos. Another common characteristic among buttercups is the fact that most of them are classified as poisonous. Though the levels of toxicness vary with each type of buttercup (some are safe to eat), it would be safe to say that the use of any type of buttercup for any type of ingestion should be kept to a minimum!

Geographic Distribution:

Monkshood flourishes best in places that have a slight moist retention. This is not to say that they grow in marshy land areas, but grow best in damp, forest environments. Of all of Earth's environments, the woody mountainous regions are known as the best place to find monkshood. Depicted on the right, one can see how well it grows prominently in the majority of the Northern Hemisphere. Map.pngNote how it can be found in the central United States. In those locations, monkshood would most likely be found around various lakes or forests. However, it is important to note that monkshood grows best in mountainous regions, and the map shows this. Note how it's presence is clearly found throughout the region of the Rocky Mountains line. It is also foudn throughout the Appalachian Mountains line, but note, the Appalachain Mountains end in Georgia, as does the presence of monkshood. The reason being is that monkshood do not grow in very arid, or hot environments. Starting from East to West, monkshoods can be found from Asia (from Japan through China and Russia, but not southern Asia like Vietnam etc) through Europe and North America. They can not, obviously, be naturally found in Australia, Africa, or Central and Southern America.

Modern and Historical Human Uses:

Despite monkshood's extremely poisonous properties, it has long been used for medicinal purposes. Monkshood is prominently used in Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (a type of Indian medecinie). sense a detoxification pr
A Traditional Chinese Medecines Shop
ocess, in which it is cooked with another non lethal herb, mostly ginger in Traditional Chinese medicine. In these two types of "alternative medical systems," monkshood is used to help cure certain ailments such as, rheumatism and arthritis. It is also used as an anesthetic, as well as, painkilling, sedation, and stimulation of heart and kidneys. While in the United States, and most European countries, the plant has been replaced by safer drugs, it is still used today as it was for centuries in certain parts of the world. The most widely known use for monkshood, other than growing in gardens, however, is the use as a lethal poison. The use of monkshood's deadly properties has been mentioned as early as Roman and Greek times. In Medieval times, the points of arrows were dipped in monkshood to use as a poison, for they believed it would kill wolves q
A Werewolf
uickly, or at the very least, keep them away from towns or people. It is most famously known, mostly in fiction, but in a time where people did seriously believe in the existence of werewolves, as a deadly poison to werewolves. It is likely people derived this idea from their notion of thinking if monkshood could kill regular wolves, it would most likely kill werewolves as well. In addition, it was also believed that the plant if, ingested, may also turn someone into a werewolf. Another belief was that a serving of monkshood could keep an infected human being from completing the process of becoming a werewolf. This is likely where monkshood gets its other common name, wolfsbane. This may seem silly now, but at that time, people did not understand certain medical conditions that cause abnormal behaviors, so many would believe abnormal behaviors to be a sign of someone being infected, or cursed. Monkshood was also said to be widely used in witches' potions. Perhaps the most interesting historical usage of monkshood lies within the suicide of Cleopatra. Most think that she committed suicide by a snake bite; however, many scholars now believe that Cleopatra committed suicide by drinking a mix drink of poisons, in which monkshood was a primary ingredient.

Monkshood in Fiction:

Monkshood has been used in thousands of novels, poems, plays, epics, video games, and movies throughout history. Collecting every piece of fiction in which monkshood was used would likely take a scholar years, even with the use of the internet! However, below are some better known examples of monkshood in fiction!

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Severus Snape mocks Harry for not knowing wolfsbane, aconite, and monkshood are all the same plant. It is also mentioned as an ingredient for the Wolfsbane Potion

In Greek Mythology Medea tries to poison Theseus with monkshood-poisoned drink!
A character wore monkshood to ward off bad luck in this 90s sitcom!
A teenager was poisoned by Monkshood in a season of this television series!


The story of Medea is one of the classic myths of antiquity, and monkshood played a major role. She was married to King Aegeus, the father of Theseus. Aegeus was infertile, but the Oracle at Delphi instructed that he would bear a child through his daughter. In order to know who his son would be, he put his sandals and sword underneath a rock, and instructed his daughter to tell his son to collect them to prove who he was.
Medea the Sourceres
Theseus was born and collected hisf father's sandals and sword
Theseus finding the sword and sandals of his father
and traveled to Athens encountering fanciful and unimaginable dangers. However, he finally made it to Athens, where he first met Medea. Medea was a sorceress who had a previous marriage. Being incredibly cruel, Medea vengefully killed all her children when the marriage had gone awry. She moved to Athens and married King Aegeus, father of Theseus. As a result of her malice, she forced Aegeus to not accept Theseus' claim as his son at face value, and persuaded him to give Theseus a nearly impossible to complete test; kill a bull brought by Herakles from Crete. The bull was said to be extremely powerful and terrifying. Much to the surprise of Medea, Theseus succeeded in killing the bull. Acting out of desperation, Medea schemed to be done with Theseus once and for all. She planned a banquet in celebration of Theseus' miraculous victory, but planned to poison his wine with the lethally poisonous MONKSHOOD! As now known from the chemical properties of monkshood, it contains the alkaloid aconitine. This is one of the most deadly plant based poisons in the world, if Theseus should drink from this monkshood-poisoned wine, the aconitine poison, through the wine, would be absorbed into the blood stream, reaching his heart causing a complete cardiac arrest. Thankfully for Theseus, his father noticed his sandals and sword, and realized that he was in fact his son. He stopped Theseus from drinking the monkshood-poisoned wine and sought to punish Medea for this crime. The sorceress put a curse on Theseus and Aegeus, but still did not live a life of luxury, for she spent it living in a self-imposed exile. Please enjoy the video below! It is the scene of Medea attempting to poison Theseus with monkshood, as well as her banishment!