Cyprus Mail

Plant of the Week: Constituent of poisoned cup given to Theseus

Name: Aconite (Aconitum napellus)

Otherwise known as: Wolf Bane

Habitat: A perennial member of the Ranunculaceae family growing up to 1.5m in moist woodland soil and native to Europe, Asia, and parts of the USA. The plant has deeply divided leaves on erect stems that terminate in long, dense racemes of deep blue to purple flowers in the shape of Greek helmets. The root is fleshy and spindle-shaped and while pale in early years turns dark brown with age. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous, the root being the most potent.

What does it do: The ancients were familiar with Aconite as a deadly poison; in mythology it was said to be the invention of Hecate from the foam of Cerberus, and was supposed to be the constituent of the poisoned cup Medea prepared for Theseus.

The plant contains a number of highly toxic alkaloids: this makes the plant anodyne, diuretic and diaphoretic. It was introduced into England in the first millennium when it was referred to in early chronicles as ‘thung’, a generic term for all poisonous plants. In the Middle Ages it was a practice by herbalists and physicians to treat cases of poisoning and envenomation with a more powerful poison, such as Aconite, with some quite dramatic results. However, that wise man Gerard, one of the pioneers of herbal medicine, was extremely skeptical: ‘…There hath been little set down concerning the virtues of the plant, but much might be saide of the hurts that come thereby’.

The effects of the poisoning are a tingling and numbing of the tongue and the extremities; a paralysis of the central nervous system; a sensation of ants crawling over the skin; nausea, vomiting and intense gastric pain which is followed by giddiness, breathlessness, irregular pulse and collapse. Unfortunately, while all this is in motion, the mind remains clear. In the early Tudor period the authorities experimented with the plant as a method of capital punishment; it was remarked that the condemned died quickly but messily; given the above; hardly surprising.

It was used topically by homeopaths and herbalists to treat sciatica, rheumatics, neuralgia and nerve related ailments. In Chinese medicine, extracts from the root are employed in treating shock, heart disease and uterine cancer


Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants. Available through Lulu Publications and Amazon Ltd