Aconite: My Favorite Poison
Aconite is our most poisonous herb, and the most poisonous you will ever use if you decide to practice. I have been criticized because I’m liberal in the amount of aconite I use in my practice. But most of my colleagues do not deal with as many chronic pain clients, or cancer clients as I do. I am very careful in applying it, combining it with other herbs, harvesting it, and in my decisions to use it.
I respect the plant as a very powerful healer…so powerful that it can and will bring death to those who fail to give it the respect it deserves. This is the dragon to be tamed, because it cannot be defeated. So let us start.
The Latin name for the type you will most likely find in California is Aconitum columbian . Some ornamental varieties found in California are, A. fisheri, A. japonicum, and A. napellus. A. napellus was the most common variety used in Europe and the United States for medicinal purposes. Folklore names give a decent description of the plant; monkshood, wolfsbane, and translated from Chinese, man killer cloak. There is a variety of aconite in the Himalayas, which is a true aconite but is not poisonous. There is an ornamental flower called Winter Aconite. It sometimes mistaken for another aconite called Wholesome Aconite. Both have yellow blossoms. Culpepper believed Wholesome Aconite to be effective against vegetable based poisons and scorpion stings. It’s not. It’s poisonous. Winter Aconite resembles true aconite, but is not a member of the aconitum family. When in doubt, consider it poisonous.
The Latin name for the type you will most likely find in California is Aconitum columbian. Some ornamental varieties found in California are, A. fisheri, A. japonicum, and A. napellus. A. napellus was the most common variety used in Europe and the United States for medicinal purposes. Folklore names give a decent description of the plant; monkshood, wolfsbane, and translated from Chinese, man killer cloak. There is a variety of aconite in the Himalayas, which is a true aconite but is not poisonous. There is an ornamental flower called Winter Aconite. It sometimes mistaken for another aconite called Wholesome Aconite. Both have yellow blossoms. Culpepper believed Wholesome Aconite to be effective against vegetable based poisons and scorpion stings. It’s not. It’s poisonous. Winter Aconite resembles true aconite, but is not a member of the aconitum family. When in doubt, consider it poisonous.
Aconite is a perennial, with a very thin stem, and a violet-blue blossom shaped like a hood. The leaves are dark green and palmated. Some varieties have a yellow, mauve or white blossom. A garden variety will grow from two to four feet. In the wild, the plant can reach over six feet…especially in Alaska. It grows throughout northern Europe, China, and in patches throughout the United States. It prefers cooler climates, and wet meadows. Leaves, stems, flowering tops are usually harvested when the plant first comes into bloom. In California this varies with the weather. Roots can be harvested any time, but seem to be strongest in the autumn. The plant can be dried in the open air, and looses very little strength. It should be harvested with gloves, as the juice is extremely toxic. If a bit falls in the eye, the pupils will contract for several hours. If the plant juice enters a cut, the person will become disoriented and possibly see double for an hour or more. The poisonous substance in the plant is called Aconitine, followed by lesser amounts of Benzaconine, and aconine. The entire plant is toxic.
History and Lore
The Greeks gave us the legend that aconite grew on the hill Aconitus, where Hercules fought and killed the three head monster canine Cerebeus, who guarded the gates to Hades, but later turns up in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Which proves you can’t keep a good monster down. The poisonous saliva of the dog fell onto the plant and cursed it forever.
Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic arts and spells used it to poison her father…and Medea was suppose to have used it to kill Theseus. Aconite was also called the Love Poison, because according to legend girls who were fed minute amounts from childhood could kill through sexual contact. The ultimate venereal disease.
The great Greek healer, botanist, military surgeon, and pharmacologist, Pedanius Dioscorides, named it Aconitum lycotonum. (Off topic: Dioscorides wrote a five volume treatise on healing plants as used in the Greco-Roman world…with colored illustrations…and it was used as late as 1610. It was free of superstition…which is more than you can say of Culpepper.)
Anglo Saxon vocabularies had a simpler name for it. They called it Thung.
The name Wolf’s Bane comes from two sources: It’s use as poison for wolves, and the myth that it repels werewolves. Considering it was used to kill wolves generally, I can see why the Lon Chaney jr. variety would be leery of it. In the middle ages, “witches” combined it with belladonna and other psychotropic plants to make an ointment that caused a sensation of flying. Internally the plant can cause irregular heart beat and a sense of vertigo. Mixed with whatever magick plants popular at the time, you would feel like you were flying. Rosemary Gladstar has a recipe for the ointment in one of her older books…for information purposes only. I have some respect for those old witchy herbalists who applied on themselves. You had to be very very careful mixing it and applying it.
Outside of legend, men found a use for it as practical poison. On the island of Ceos in the Aegean sea, teas of aconite were given to old people who were too ill to be healed and might become a burden to the state. Hunters made an ointment of it to put on their arrows and darts. In Asia and Europe, soldiers used it to poison opposing forces water supplies. As did armies in India who used A. ferox for exactly the same thing, but sometimes smeared it on their arrows just to make sure. In the years 1524 and 1526 two condemned prisoners in Britain were given the opportunity to eat it, rather than face a more traditional fate of hanging. Contemporary accounts report they died within minutes.
Aconite kills by slowing the heart, and in heavy doses stopping the heart completely. A tincture made from the root can kill a full size man with as little as twelve drops or roughly one gram. A tincture made from the aboveground portions will kill but would take more than 20 or more drops depending on various factors. Sources suggest that as little as two grams of the roots would do the same. If the dose of aconite is only near fatal the effects of poisoning is as follows: Tingling, numb mouth and tongue, lowered blood pressure, incontinence, cold and clammy skin, gastric pain, giddiness, staggering, excessive salivation, irregular heart beat, chest pain, prostration, a sensation of ants crawling on the skin, nausea, vomiting…all while your mind stays clear. Psychological effects are sleeplessness, anxiety, panic, a sense of suffocation. Not a pleasant way to die. On the other hand…if you take a large enough dose, death is quick. Intravenous application of aconite avoids stomach issues…but there is not a great deal of information on this other than a few writings in Victorian and Edwardian medical and crime journals. More on that topic later.
Despite the fact that aconite was used in folk healing and by the better educated herbalists of the day, it was considered so poisonous it did not enter European Materia Medicas or pharmacopoeias until 1763, and was not listed in the British or American pharmacopoeias until 1788.
The Chinese on the other hand were using aconite as early as 400 BCE. The Asian variety, called A. chinensis, was and is used today, but is highly processed. The root is the only portion used and is soaked in vinegar for one month, then soaked in salt water for another month. This is repeated three times before the root is used medicinally. Even then, Taiwan and mainland China leads the world in aconite deaths. The root is often made into a liniment, ointment, or ground into very small pills. Topically the root is used as an analgesic for strained muscles, neuralgia, broken bones, arthritis, and now for painful surgical scars. A more traditional method is to heat the processed root with salt, and quickly place the heated salt in silk packets and place those on the affected areas. In some areas of China, the entire fresh plant is used. Oddly, those areas have a high rated of aconite deaths, but folks swear by it regardless.
Internally the root is taken in minute doses for inflammation of the kidneys, rapid heart beat (tachycardia), and congestive heart failure and high blood pressure.
How We Use Aconite
The Chinese and Western herbalists consider aconite as a warming herb, as it will bring on a sense of warmth in minute doses. What does this suggest to you? Here’s a hint, western herbalists and doctors used it for hypothermia. Right! Circulatory stimulant.
I know what you’re thinking. How can an herb that depresses heart function be a circulatory stimulant in small doses. Easy question. I don’t know. In herbology this type of plant action would be called an adaptogen function…though in the case of aconite, that is really debatable…as the HERBALIST must adapt the amount of herb to the needed condition.
Remember when I mentioned that aconite poisoning caused gastric distress? In the late 1880’s a vinegar tincture of aconite was used to alleviate gastric distress.
Michael Moore, the great southwestern herbalist only used the weaker above ground portions of the plant, as does my mentor Adam Seller. The majority of herbalists in the US and Europe make no attempt to use it with the exception of homeopathic doses…which in this herbalist’s opinion is worthless.
I use the entire plant, including the deadliest portion…the root.
If you ever use aconite without exception you will be using small amounts. The easiest way to do this is to make a standard tincture of aconite, 1 to 5 fresh herb or 1 to 10 dried herb …preferably in Everclear, or at the very least 151 rum. As a liniment you can make it 1 to 2 in 90 % isopropyl alcohol.
For Nerve Pain and External Use
So what is this plant good for? Writing in 1931, the great compiler of herbal knowledge , Maudie Grieve, considered it as one of the most useful herbs of modern times. She considered it from the English herbalist point of view as a pain killer, diuretic and diaphoretic. Michael Moore suggests that the most practical and safest use for this plant is pain. And I’m thoroughly in agreement. Topically it can be applied to any surface of the skin that is unbroken. For nerve derived pain, such as in cases of sciatica, neuralgia, and even shingles, aconite tincture can be painted on with a q-tip. Adam Seller has used this to stop pain after the removal of genital warts by electrical burning. I have used for pain on healed surgical scars…especially lumpectomies and heart bypass scars. For deeper pain it can be used as a cool compress. The moistened cloth can be left on the affected area for several minutes.
Inflammations of the skin respond well to aconite as long as the skin is unbroken, or if the skin is broken but blood is not evident. Deep tissue injuries may require a carrier for the aconite. In these cases, a liniment with mint is advised. Again, a compress can be used to keep the liniment against the skin. If longer term contact is needed, a salve, made from comfrey, Arnica and perhaps Calendula, spiked with aconite liniment is recommended. In the UK and most of Europe, a salve with aconite is limited to 1.3 parts aconite to 100 parts lotion. You might as well throw out the aconite altogether at those amounts. May I suggest a more useful amount would be eight to twelve ounces of salve, to one half ounce of liniment. The tincture or liniment of aconite should be added while the salve is still hot. It should be quickly stirred into the salve and then allowed to cool.
A comfrey based aconite salve is useful for sun burn. It will reduce swelling and help lessen pain.
The same salve can be used on radiation burns common with certain cancer treatments. It will prevent blistering if used immediately after treatments.
As a topical anti-inflammatory, it ranks with arnica and above chamomile in this regard. Aconite and mint can be used for diabetic swelling of the legs or feet, edema, or swellings due to injury. While most anti-inflammatory herbs should be used immediately when swelling is evident, aconite can be used for chronic or long term swelling. Absorbed into the skin it will produce a warm tingling sensation and then numbness, although chronic pain clients say they have never felt the warmth or tingling. Combined into a salve, or made into a liniment, it has been used for neuralgia, and rheumatism. There is no evidence it breaks down uric acid crystals in cases of “hot” arthritis, but it will stop pain by deadening the nerves in the affected area.
Internal Uses of Aconite
As Maudie Grieve wrote, it is a diaphoretic. And while Michael Moore would prefer not to use it as such, he has in some cases. Michael suggests, four to five drops of the aerial portion tincture, every fifteen to twenty minutes, will help break run away fevers. The client will begin to sweat profusely, so be prepared to rehydrate with water or electrolyte drinks. While I don’t like to use this for fevers in general, it can be used when yarrow or turkey mullein fail.
In the case of night sweats from HIV or diabetes, when other herbs fail, aconite will usually help if not outright alleviate the symptoms. This is not an overnight cure, but it should kick in within 72 hours. Two drops at bedtime of the 1 to 5 tincture, with another two drops if the client wakes in the middle of the night is the dose I’ve used for my clients.
While not my first choice, it would be my choice for a pleurisy treatment when all other herbs have failed, and the client is convalescing at home. In the early 20th century, an injection of aconite was used as quick diuretic for emergency treatment of congestive heart failure. The amount used is difficult to determine. Experiments on myself suggest the following: five drops of aconite tincture, mixed with one ounce of water. Beginning with 10 drops every 15 minutes, the body should begin losing fluids within 30 to 45 minutes. I had no serious side effects.
Both Grieve and Moore, writing over 50 years apart warn that it should not be used on debilitated individuals. The chronically ill, depressed or debilitated are not good candidates for aconite. On the other hand, I have used it on individuals who have suffered chronic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, and RSDS. And none of those folks were in the peak of health. Because aconite can be a stimulant, I think Grieve and Moore were concerned about a rapid rise of blood pressure and perhaps a sudden irregular heart action. These are reasonable concerns.
In all three cases I have combined California Poppy tincture, tincture of Passion Flower, and full strength aconite in the following amounts. ¾ of an ounce of CA. Poppy, ¼ ounce of passion flower, and twenty drops of aconite, plant and root tincture. I’ve begun treatment with 8 drops every hour as a baseline for pain reduction. Eventually 16 to 20 drops became a standard treatment. While pain did not disappear from the subjects, enough pain was reduced to allow the person work and do mild housework. This allowed the subjects to cut down on narcotic pain killers which interfered with everyday functions.
The Poison Side of This Story
Aconite poisoning is quite rare in the United States. As far as I know, I’m the only imbecile to accidentally poison himself twice. The first was time was harvesting it on Mt.Whitney. I did not use gloves. As it is topical painkiller, I did notice a bit of the plant juice had entered a small cut on my hand. While driving down the mountain several minutes later, my vision became doubled and the voice of my passenger sounded as if she were in an echo chamber. I felt lightheaded, so I pulled over and let her drive. An hour and a half later I felt human again, but I also drank several Cokes due to a sudden thirst. The second time was as follows. I accident spilled several drops of chickweed tincture on my hand. I quickly licked it off. I then realized it wasn’t chickweed. My heartbeat slowed down by a third, my blood pressure dropped to normal, sensations were blunted, my lips and tongue felt numb, time slowed, and there were faint color distortions. Pains in my back and shoulder disappeared. I called for my daughter to help me, explaining I had poisoned myself with aconite. After calling me a sonofabitch, my daughter also called me an idiot. I was in no condition to argue.
She asked what she could do, and I told her to put on my Sheryl Crowe CD.
In a serious poisoning, artificial respiration will be required, and a heart stimulant administered. As I didn’t have a heart stimulant and syringe, I had my daughters make me some strong coffee (black, no sugar), and I took a large dose of Guarana and a smaller dose of Yohimbe. Guarana is a stimulant and Yohimbe fires the nerves in the spinal chord. This allowed my body to work the poison out. I peed copiously. I was unable to drive for several hours.
I believe I ingested no more than four to five drops of straight aconite tincture. I estimate that 20 drops would have been fatal.
Can aconite be used for severe pain, such as cancer? Yes. But it would only be ethically justified when narcotics fail to work, or allowed to fail when not given in larger doses. The use of aconite would be very dangerous; as to be effective it would need to injected or introduced to an existing shunt in the body. Small amounts injected with sterile water would have to be used as a pain baseline. A careful check of blood pressure and heart rhythms would be absolutely necessary. Is it an effective painkiller? Yes. But if common sense prevails amongst the people who control pain medications aconite should not be necessary. I have yet to see a terminally ill person become a junkie and begin robbing liquor stores to get money for their fix. Heroin should be made available for such people.
Though I no longer remember the test for it, aconite along with arsenic where the first poisons forensic science were able to test for after arsenic. The test for aconite is no longer common in the U.S., but is still done in Asia. Very recently I was asked if aconite could be found in a body after death. Sadly I don’t know. There is a strong possibility it was used in a murder-suicide a few years ago of a former Hollywood producer and his daughter.
Should aconite be used by those individuals, who of sound mind, wish to end their terminal suffering? Yes. And I say this because physicians who have attended end of life situations have noticed that narcotics often fail due to either insufficient amounts, or the body’s inability to absorb a lethal dose for whatever reasons. Remember, Rasputin ate lethal amounts of poison in some sweet cakes on his last day on earth, and it only gave him a case of the burps. A lack of stomach acid made the poisons useless. A body battered by cancer and cancer treatments can no longer absorb medications quickly, especially when given orally. Often times the unconscious though still living person must be asphyxiated.
Aconite in a high enough dose, especially given intravenously, will stop the heart. Even taken orally in a large enough dose, it will end life before painful side effects occur.
So there you have it. Aconite. Killer and healer in one plant.