The chances are that you haven’t heard too much about aconites. Maybe you’re a city kid who doesn’t manage to make it out into the wilderness too often. Or perhaps you live in a warmer or drier part of the world, and you’ve just seen or heard about this interesting little plant for the first time.
Whatever your contact with the aconite is, it’s a flower that isn’t too well-known to many people. And when they see or hear about this beautiful flower, they might want to learn a little more about it.
Well, fret not, my fellow flower aficionados! We have created a guide on the aconite plant, and its flower family, for your viewing pleasure!
We’ll talk about the basics of this plant, where it can be found, how it best grows, its spiritual and cultural importance to the places it calls home, and plenty of plant facts. And, most importantly, why, if you see an aconite plant in the wilderness, you must NOT touch it.
Aconite Flower – What Is It?
The aconite plant, also known as Wolf’s bane and Monkshood in some places where it is found, can be found across the world. They were originally found across Africa, Europe, and Asia, but have since found places where they thrive on virtually any continent.
These days, they can be found in North and South America, as well as in Australia. The only place they haven’t taken root is in frozen Antarctica, for reasons that are pretty obvious to anyone who knows how much flowers hate the cold.
There are two main characteristics that this plant is known for: The plant’s flowers, which are shaped into a uniquely beautiful formation that looks like a bell.
The second and most important characteristic, for us as humans, is the danger they pose to people and our animals. This plant is incredibly poisonous. It doesn’t matter what part of the plant you are examining.
The flowers. The stem. The leaves. The roots. Every part is highly toxic for people. Not just consume, or apply in other ways. Just touching it can have pretty nasty side effects. All safe handling of this plant includes the use of gloves, to make sure there is no contact.
Etymological Meaning Of The Aconite Flower
The aconite has gained plenty of names over the years, all of them with fascinating histories. Some are very straightforward if little to no need for explanation. And others have a little more linguistic history up to their sleeves.
Take the name ‘monkshood’ for example. It’s a pretty self-explanatory name for the flower, as it looks like the hoods that a cloistered monk might wear in remote monasteries.
This is how the flower received this name in the English Middle Ages, as these orders were quite widespread across the English Isles
‘Wolf’s bane’ is another pretty simple name to wrap our heads around. In Ancient Greece, Farmer looking to protect their flocks, would tip the ends of arrows into a liquid solution filled with aconite poison, and use them against wolves that hunted their livestock.
Hence, it was a bane to wolves that hunted sheep.
Its scientific name is a little more complex. The original term comes from the Greek origin ‘akoniton’ for which we have unfortunately lost its original meaning, though it likely referred to some kind of poisonous plant, if not wolf’s bane itself.
This would eventually be Latinized into ‘aconitum’, before becoming the French ‘aconit’ in the 16th century. By the time it made its way to English, it was the word ‘aconite’, which we still use today.
The Symbolism Of The Aconite Flower
Because of its poisonous effects, the plant has often been used to symbolize caution when out in the wilderness. That, just because something looks beautiful, doesn’t mean that it should be approached or interacted with.
In that way, Wolf’s bane is an appropriate title, as it very much has those similar qualities: A beautiful specimen whilst out in nature, but should never be approached or handled.
Even the act of being poisoned by aconite carries with it powerful symbolism. Many veterinarians and doctors have noted how the symptoms of poisoning from this plant carry some resemblance to how rabies affects various canine species.
Including symptoms like frothing at the mouth, deliriousness, impaired eyesight to the affected person, and eventually, falling into a coma.
With this context, poisoning from the plant can be seen as a loss of control and of other higher faculties, as a consequence of ignorance on the victim’s part.
It was believed that the mythological origin for aconite in Greek mythology is from the creature Cerberus (a piece of cultural history, we will discuss further), and was believed to be found in the mouths of rabid animals.
Given these connections, the act of poisoning from aconite bears some resemblance to the manic and dangerous nature of rabies-infected wolves. This symbolizes a feral wild side common to the front of the victim’s mind, and potentially, as loss of their humanity.
Aconite Flower Color Meanings
Aconites normally do not have a lot of color variation in the wild/ They are typically found in only two variations: Various shades of purple, and blue. However, there is still plenty to unpack when it comes to these beautiful, yet deadly flowers.
- Purple: Probably the most common color that you’ll find an aconite flower in, most species of the plant have a distinct deep purple to them. In other flowers, purple is a color of royalty and regal strength, and a symbol of power that should be respected. In the wolf’s bane, it means something very similar, but with perhaps a more violent twist.
- It is a symbol of strength that can cause great suffering if ignored.
- Blue: A somewhat rarer color to find on an aconite plant, the blue wolf’s bane is still very popular as an ornamental plant, despite how toxic it is. In most cases, a blue flower is intended to signify both peace and tranquility in a person, in the hope that aggression and frustration will leave them and be replaced with inner peace.
- But when that is applied to a highly toxic plant, that meaning can take on other things. It can often be a symbol of wanting to be undisturbed and wanting to be left to one’s own devices. Disturbing it can bring harm to anyone that does, so why risk it?
Meaningful Botanical Characteristics Of The Aconite Flower
The stem of the Aconite plant that you find in most gardens and in the wild has a relatively thick stem that sprouts from a tuber. The flowers that the plant produces tend to grow very packed around this tuberous base, which gives the plant that tight, cloistered appearance that it is best known for.
The flowers themselves have a long, hood-like appearance that drops over the flower’s stigma. One of the petals of the plant will be noticeably larger than the rest, covering the rest of the flower in the same way a piece of headwear shields the face, such as with a helmet or a hood.
This petal is called the galea, but anywhere between two and ten petals will be found on normal aconite, depending on the variety. At the top of this hooded flower are the nectaries, which contain the vast majority of nectar that this plant produces.
The leaves of the plant tend to be lobed with the jagged or sharp edges running along with them, and lack the stipules that you’ll find on many other plants that grow from tuberous stems.
They grow in moist regions that are at a high altitude, and so are found in many mountainous parts of Europe and Africa. They are a vital food source for several species of moths that can be found where they grow.
The alkaloids that this plant creates in its nectar make it so that species that do not normally act as pollinators will find it deterring further consumption.
And because of their characteristics as to where the nectaries can be found on this flower, it is very difficult for many normal pollinators to be able to reach its nectar.
The long-tongued bumblebees are the main pollinators in their natural habitat, as they have the strength and tools necessary to force their way into the flower hood and obtain their prize.
Special Occasions For The Aconite Flower
Their beautiful, deep purple appearance, means that some people may be tempted to try and give this plant as a gift to others. And whilst the gesture is a kind one, this should not be done under any circumstances.
Their highly toxic nature means that they are dangerous to even just handle. And considering how it is considered a bad omen or sign because of this, there are very few reasons why someone would be happy to receive this over other purple flowers.
In Victorian periods, the flower was often given as a gift to give the recipient a warning, in case the person gifting the flowers saw danger in the person’s future. Needless to say, there aren’t many situations where you would want to bring warnings of ill-tidings to a special occasion, now would you?
In short, the best place for Aconite plants is in the wild, where they belong, and where wildlife knows to avoid them.
Aconite Flower Cultural Significance
Aconite and its other related flowers, because of their wide range across Asia, Europe, and Africa, have been a part of people’s history and culture for thousands of years.
In Asia, aconite has been a part of traditional medicines in both China and India as alternative therapies to ailments for centuries.
In Classical Greece, it was believed that Cerberus, the legendary three-headed hound that guards the gates to the Underworld, it was said by the Roman poet Ovid that the herb came from the mouth of the beast’s mouth as it slavered, its poisonous nature reinforcing the hellish imagery that Cerberus was often depicted with.
Because it is well-known for its use as a poisonous agent, aconite appears in many works of literature and fiction as a poison given to others. Whether as an item that adds extra tension to the stories it appears in. As the final nail in the coffin for a tragic piece.
As a symbol of a toxic or venomous relationship between characters. Or as the weapon of choice in a crime thriller. The aconite is just as dangerous to the characters on the page as they are to people in the real world. Maybe even more so!
And when both the mythological elements of aconite history and literature combine, there are plenty of creative opportunities on the part of a writer for aconite.
In the Harry Potter series, they are a useful toxin to stop the transformation of a werewolf on a full moon, tying back into the roots of Greek mythology to represent a source of wild, untamed energy from a divine source, as well as beliefs from old witchcraft that the plant could be a cure for the curse of a werewolf.
Aconite Flower Trivia
- Some aconite plants grow so tall that their stem cannot fully support themselves. This is one of the reasons that they will usually grow in more shaded or ecologically busier places. This acts as a natural buffer as to how tall they can realistically grow.
- Their toxicity is not just limited to humans. Most animals that we deal with in our day-to-day lives find the aconite a highly toxic plant to even touch, as well as if they are consumed. Dogs, cats, horses, and most livestock animals will find the plant highly poisonous. For this reason, you should avoid planting these in your garden or backyard, to avoid as much contact with them for you and your pets as possible.
- Interestingly, birds have not been reported as showing any sign of being poisoned or otherwise harmed by this plant.
- Aconites tend to bloom in June and July in the Northern Hemisphere.
- There are over 300 different species of aconites around in the world today.
- There is a common folktale from medieval Japan of servants that, mistaking the aconite flower for sugar, ate the flower, and suffered greatly for their ignorance.
Aconite Flower Uses
As we have already stated many times in this guide, aconites are an incredibly toxic plant to humans. As such, their uses have been somewhat limited over the years.
They have been used in traditional medicines for several purposes, but if not prepared correctly, and enough of the poison isn’t extracted, the results have dire consequences for the recipient of the treatment.
It’s one of the reasons why most countries don’t use it for most ailments, at least until further research has been conducted.
Interestingly, quite a lot of research projects and clinical studies have researched the possibility of it being used to treat lethargy, pain, and some symptoms of rheumatism, with some success.
However, many of these papers do emphasize the limitations of this herb, which must not be discounted. This is still a highly toxic plant, after all.
Because of the poisonous characteristics of the plant, the aconite flower, stem, and roots of the plant are a popular source of the poison that people have used across the world for thousands of years. In the northern islands of Japan, for instance, the indigenous Ainu cultures and societies used to douse their hunting arrows in aconite poison to hunt bears.
The Minaro from the Kashmir region of the Indian subcontinent, to hunt ibex goats.
Then, of course, there is the use of aconite poison on other humans. Pope Clement VII tested an antidote for aconite poisoning, which also functioned as a trial by poison, which had not been seen since the Ancient Greek period.
The Symbolism Of An Aconite Flower Tattoo
Having a flower is a very common thing to have on your body as a tattoo. Many are beautiful, with distinct designs and vivid colors, that can mean all kinds of positive things for people.
Having the aconite flower as a tattoo is maybe a little more confusing. Certainly, it is a very pretty flower to have on your body, but if we are considering the ties the plant has to ill omens, dangers, poison, and death itself, then the meaning that the tattoo is supposed to convey can get a little messy.
You certainly don’t want to convey that you are a toxic or poisonous person!
However, that poison meaning can be viewed in an alternate light. If you have suffered and had to go through something dangerous for you as a person, whether that was a toxic relationship of some kind, or perhaps an event that has left you deeply affected, the plant can become a symbol that you survived a terrible ordeal, and you are still here at the end of it.
That’s a powerful message that many people can certainly get behind.
So, the aconite flower is something both beautiful and deadly to people and carries as much fascinating information as you would expect such a plant to have gathered. Especially after so many years.
We hope you have found this guide informative and entertaining. And for the last time:
Do not touch the flower!