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Aconitum myth & magic.

Aconitum is a genus of plants belonging to the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, which consists of approximately 60 genera. There are thought to be over a hundred species of Aconitum. The common names for the plant usually refer either to the shape of the flowers (monkshood, helmet-flower, friar's cap, etc.) or the plant's perceived use (wolfsbane). They are chiefly natives of the northern temperate hemisphere. Many species of Aconitum are cultivated in gardens, some having blue (monkshood) flowers and others yellow (wolfsbane) flowers. As garden plants, the aconites are very ornamental, hardy perennials. They thrive well in any ordinary garden soil, and will grow beneath the shade of trees. They are easily propagated by divisions of the root or by seeds. However, caution is advised as monkshood and wolfsbane are poisonous, and gloves should be worn when gardening with these plants. They should not be planted in gardens where children or pets play.

The name wolfsbane may have arisen from the practice in the 13th and 14th centuries of using the plant in poison baits for wolves. The species, A. lycoctonum, alpine wolfsbane, is a yellow-flowered species common in the Alps of Switzerland named for its connection with wolves. In times past it has been suggested as a magical cure for the werewolf's condition. Aconite is widely associated with witchcraft. In medieval times, witches were reported to have used darts of flint coated in the plant extract to throw at intended victims. These were known as 'elf-bolts.' The victim would notice only a small scratch at the time but soon they would become ill and die. The plant was also used as an ingredient in witches 'flying ointment.' The seed when wrapped in lizard skin offered invisibility. Writers cautioned that only witches of some senior standing should attempt the ritual to invoke the Goddess Hekate (Hecate). According to the Guide to the Shamanic and Ritual Use of Herbs (1996), "Aconite has a dark and fearful reputation and has nearly always been used for malevolent magic."

According to legend, the plant was thought to have sprung from the drops of spittle of Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld, as Hercules dragged the monster out while performing his 12th labour. It has also been suggested that the plant was the invention of Hecate (Hekate) who made it from the saliva of Cerberus. The legend of Hecate (Hekate) precedes the Hercules myth. The archaic name for the plant is Hecateis herba (Darkmother's herb), since by medieval times, Hecate (Hekate) was considered Queen of Witches. Although few temples were devoted exclusively to the goddess, she was often found at the doorway to the temples of other deities, especially Demeter, Artemis, Persephone, Kybele and Hermes. Each temple was a place to contact the Underworld and Hecate was the guardian of that gate.

Acanitum also has a presence in " Christian lore. Another common name is St. Dunstan's Herb. In portraits of Saint Dunstan, a 10th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, the plant is often present. Dunstan was said to have once held the devil by the nose with a pair of red-hot tongs, forcing from him an oath to never again tempt the saint. Shortly thereafter Dunstan dreamt of an enormous branching spire of flowers shaped like the cowls of monks which was interpreted as indicative of Christianity spreading throughout a future England ruled by a Catholic clergy. We all know how that turned out!

And so, Acanitum--monkshood or wolfsbane--whichever you call it, has very interesting past associations. I will still admire it in the garden, but I shall also be very careful in its presence.

BJ Jackson is a member of The Prairie Garden Committee and one of last year's Guest Editors. She is involved with the Manitoba Regional Lily Society, and works at the University of Brandon, MB.
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Title Annotation:medical plants, research
Author:Jackson, Barbara-Jean
Publication:Prairie Garden
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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