October Plant of the Month
Aconitum uncinatum, Southern Monkshood
Among the last plants to bloom on Wildflower Island is Aconitum uncinatum, Southern Monkshood. Monkshood got its common name from the shape of the flowers, which bloom quite late in the fall and are primarily visited by young queen bumblebees before they enter hibernation to found next year’s colonies. Indigenous to the Appalachians and Coastal Plain south of New York, Aconitum uncinatum is a rare and endangered North American member of a genus that’s more common and speciose in Europe and Asia. Species in the genus Aconitum are members of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, and like many plants in that family, Aconitum has powerful chemical defenses against being eaten by mammals.
An alternate name for Monkshood is Wolfsbane. The extraordinary toxicity of this plant meant it was widely used in baited traps to poison wolves, and this practice was certainly instrumental in the eradication of wolves throughout much of Europe. Because of its use to kill wolves, over time the European species of this plant were associated with lycanthropy, or werewolves. Aconitum came to be seen as a folk remedy to cure people believed to be afflicted. This could be effective, from a certain point of view. You can’t be a werewolf if you’re dead.
It should go without saying use of this plant for those purposes is terrible. We know a lot more now about the crucial role wolves play within ecosystems than people did in the past. With our increased knowledge, the power of these plants may be used in far more beneficial ways today, albeit very carefully. Compounds in the poisons of Aconitum uncinatum can be used to treat conditions like sciatica. Our specimen on the Island is currently blooming more or less in time for Halloween, appropriate for a plant so associated with monsters. However, when I see it blooming on these crisp autumn days, I’m reminded that monstrosity is a point of view, and understanding can serve as a bridge from fear to respect.
Mathew McDowell, Wildflower Island Curator