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Growing Concerns: Wolf’s bane may beautify your garden

October 29, 2018 GMT

Aconitum napellus, commonly referred to as monkshood, helmet flower or wolf’s bane, is a member of the ranunculaceae family. This herbaceous plant is native to the mountainous regions of western and central Europe. The plant can be found growing in the moist, well-drained soils of mountain meadows.

The ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, is a family of more than 2,000 species of plants. Members of this family are distributed worldwide in temperate and subtropical regions. Common genera found in this family include ranunculus, delphinium, thalictrum, and helleborus. The plants in this family contain alkaloid compounds with varying levels of toxicity. Aconitum resembles delphinium but is longer-lived than delphinium.

Aconitum prefers full sun and becomes leggy with too much shade. Being native to mountainous meadows, it prefers cooler temperatures. During the heat of the summer, the plant performs best with morning sun and afternoon shade in moist soils. Use plants along streams, ponds, or bogs where soils are moist.

Growing two to four feet tall, monkshood should be placed in the back of the border, where it provides an excellent vertical accent. In rich, fertile soils the plant may require staking. The palmate leaves are a beautiful dark green color.

The spire-like flowers are deep blue or purple. The saturated blue hue is beautiful. It is the upper sepal of the florets that develop into a large, helmet-like structure that resembles the hood of the cloak worn by medieval monks, hence the common name monkshood, or helmet flower. Monkshood flower in fall, and with the late start to our spring it is currently flowering in the SMART garden.

The specific epithet, napellus, translates to small turnip or tuber. This plant has a tuberous root system, making the plant difficult to divide and transplant. Luckily, it rarely needs to be divided.

The genus name, aconitum, translates to poisonous herbs. All parts of the plant, especially the roots and seeds, are poisonous. The drug aconite is extracted from the leaves and roots and was once prescribed as a cardiac and respiratory sedative. Gloves should be worn when working with this plant to avoid contact with the plant juices.

The plant was used as an arrow poison and a poison bait for killing wolves, hence wolfsbane. The plant has also been used as an arrow poison to hunt ibex, bear and whale, as well as in human warfare.

The plant is deer- and rabbit-resistant with no serious insect or disease problems.

Monkshood is a low-maintenance plant providing late-season color in the garden. It is one of the few plants still blooming in the garden. Best left undisturbed, choose a spot in the garden wisely.