Monkshood is a tall flowering plant of the buttercup family native to mountainous areas of Europe, and sometimes grown in gardens in temperate zones. It is one of the most highly toxic plants in the world, with dangerous alkaloids present in the stems, leaves, flowers, and tubers. The plant has been used since ancient times as a powerful poison to kill humans and animals. The proper name for monkshood is Aconitum napellus, but it has been called a variety of other names, including wolfsbane, women's bane, Devil's helmet, leopard's bane, witches’ bane, and blue rocket.
Growing 3-5 feet (.9-1.5 meters) tall, monkshood is sometimes grown in the back of a garden. It produces large, three-lobed serrated leaves on thin stems. The spikes of flowers are bright shades of blue, purple, or gold, with yellow stamens, in an unusual rounded shape that suggests a monk’s hood or a helmet. Monkshood is sometimes mistaken for blue delphinium, which has a similar shape and flower color. Common varieties are found growing sparsely in the wild, in temperate zones above 1,200 feet (366 meters).
In ancient Roman times, monkshood was recognized as a potent poison and was sometimes used by assassins, such as the killer of Emperor Claudius. Soldiers sometimes coated their arrows and sword blades with the sap from the plant before going into battle. Medieval people used the plant to kill wolves, leopards, and mad dogs, giving it the name wolfsbane, and some believed that witches coated their broomsticks with the sap to enable themselves to fly.
All parts of the plant are toxic, and the toxins can seep through the skin. Gardeners should use gloves when handling the plant and should wash immediately afterward. In some countries, monkshood is only sold to specialist gardeners who are sure to handle the plant carefully. As it is such a dangerous plant, it should not be grown where children or animals can come into contact with it.
The symptoms of monkshood poisoning depends on the amount of toxin that is absorbed; a dose between 5-25 mg can cause paralysis of the nervous system. Within 5-20 minutes after contact, the person will feel flushed, start sweating, salivating, and vomiting, and begin to feel dizzy. The person may develop a headache, blurred vision, and have trouble breathing. Within hours, the respiratory and cardiac systems can fail. If monkshood poisoning is suspected, the patient should drink large amounts of water and a doctor or poison control specialist should be called immediately.