This is a classic case where natural does not mean safe. Aconite (also known as aconitum, monkshood or wolfbane) is popularly known as ‘herbal valium’ for its ability to slow down the heart rate. Although the effectiveness of this ancient herb to treat some ailments isn’t disputed, the effectiveness level is so close to fatal toxicity that last week, according to Medical News Today, a U.S. government watchdog agency warned consumers of the cardiovascular dangers of taking any herbal medicines containing aconite. All 109 species and seven hybrids of aconitum contain the alkaloids aconitine, aconine, ephedrine, and sparteine that may be toxic to the heart. There is no antidote.
Richard Woodfield of The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said it was vital people did not confuse herbal medicines and homeopathic ones. “Registered homeopathic products that contain aconite are considered acceptably safe as the active ingredient, aconite, is sufficiently diluted,” he said. “Herbal medicines, however, are made from plants, and so can have a very significant effect on the body. In certain cases, such as with aconite, the medicine can be extremely potent.”
This warning follows up on a 2007 study by researchers at Harvard University who found that because of aconitine’s unique voltage shift in cell activation, it not only causes dangerous cardiac arrhythmia, but also induces repetitive discharges in nerve cells.
Aconite goes back a long way in folk medicine’s history. For centuries, roots harvested from a variety of monkshood plants have been used in Chinese and Japanese medicine for analgesic, anti-rheumatic, and neurological uses. As wolfbane, it was believed to repel the werewolf and protect anyone who wore it from a wolf’s attack, or similarly, used to poison bait left out to kill the wolf. It was a popular poison in ancient Rome to fulfill the death penalty for convicted criminals. Later, the Roman government declared the use of the herb illegal and punished herbalists who grew it. And meanwhile, over on the lovely island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea, aconite was administered to old or infirm men who “were of no further use to the state”. When villages were attacked in Medieval Europe, villagers would poison the water supply with aconitum before fleeing for safety. The tuber of aconitum ferox was used by Himalayan hunters to poison their arrows.
Even in the practice of modern homeopathy, however, where it has been used for intense-onset illnesses like fever, cold or earache, extreme caution is warranted. Legal restrictions limit aconite in lotion form to not exceed 1.3 parts of aconite to 100 parts of lotion. But to be effective, the homeopathic therapeutic dose is so close to the toxic level that it should never be used internally, and external application should never be done over broken skin. Even application to unbroken skin can be toxic (and potentially fatal) due to absorption through the skin.
Eating a leaf or snacking on a tiny portion of the root causes immediate numbness and tingling in the mouth. The roots are particularly toxic to both humans and pets. Reported symptoms of aconite poisoning are crawling skin, vomiting and coldness.
So unless you have an enemy army advancing on you, or a werewolf skulking around your garden shed, the beautiful purple monkshood deserves to be left alone in your perennial borders. Enjoy the flowers, from a distance.
Find out more information about the recent aconite health advisory.