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(Aconitum napellus LINN.)
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Steadman Shorter’s Medical Dictionary, Poisons & Antidotes: Aconite
Botanical: Aconitum napellus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Ranunculaciae
—Synonyms—Monkshood. Blue Rocket. Friar’s Cap. Auld Wife’s Huid.
—Part Used—The whole plant.
—Habitat—Lower mountain slopes of Northportion of Eastern Hemisphere. From Himalayas through Europe to Great Britain.Aconite is now found wild in a few parts of England, mainly in the western counties and also in South Wales, but can hardly be considered truly indigenous. It was very early introduced into England, being mentioned in all the English vocabularies of plants from the tenth century downwards, and in Early English medical recipes.
—Description—The plant is a hardy perennial, with a fleshy, spindle-shaped root,palecoloured when young, butsubsequently acquiring a dark brown skin. The stem is about 3 feet high, with dark green, glossy leaves, deeply divided inpalmatemanner and flowers in erect clusters of a dark blue colour. The shape of the flower is specially designed to attract andutilizebee visitors, especially thehumble bee. The sepals are purple – purple being specially attractive to bees – and are fancifully shaped, one of them being in the form of a hood. The petals are only represented by the two very curious nectaries within the hood, somewhat in the form of a hammer; the stamens arenumerous and lie depressed in a bunch at the mouth of the flower. They are pendulous at first, but rise in succession and place their anthersforward in such a way that a bee visiting the flower for nectaris dusted with the pollen, which he then carries to the next flower he visits and thereby fertilizes the undeveloped fruits, which are in a tuft in the centre of the stamens, each carpel containing a single seed.In the Anglo-Saxon vocabularies it is called thung, which seems to have been a general name for any very poisonous plant. It was then called Aconite (the English form of its Greek and Latin name), later Wolf’s Bane, the direct translation of the Greek Iycotonum, derived from the idea that arrows tipped with the juice, or baits anointed with it, would kill wolves – the species mentioned by Dioscorides seems to have been Aconitum lycotonum. In the Middle Ages it became Monkshood and Helmet-flower, from the curious shape of the upper sepal overtopping the rest of the flower. This was the ordinary name in Shakespeare’s days.
The generic name is said to have been derived from <akontion< i=””>, a dart, because it was used by barbarous races to poison their arrows, or from akone, cliffy or rocky, because the species grow in rocky glens. Theophrastus, like Pliny, derived the name from Aconae, the supposed place of its origin. The specific name, Napellus, signifies a little turnip, in allusion to the shape of the roots.
—Cultivation—The chief collecting centres for foreign Aconite root have been the Swiss Alps, Salzburg, North Tyrol and Vorarlberg. Much was also formerly collected in Germany. Supplies from Spain and Japan are imported, so that the demand for English Aconite is somewhat restricted. The official Aconite is directed by the British Pharmacopceia to be derived only from plants cultivated in England, and a certain amount of home-grown Aconite has been regularly produced by the principal drug-farms, though good crops are grown with some difficulty in England, and cultivation of Aconite has not paid very well in recent years.
Aconite prefers a soil slightly retentive of moisture, such as a moist loam, and flourishes best in shade. It would probably grow luxuriantly in a moist, open wood, and would yield returns with little further trouble than weeding, digging up and drying.
In preparing beds for growing Aconite, the soil should be well dug and pulverized by early winter frosts – the digging in of rotten leaves or stable manure is advantageous.
It can be raised from seed, sown 1/2 inch deep in a cold frame in March, or in a warm position outside in April, but great care must be exercised that the right kind is obtained, as there are many varieties of Aconite- about twenty-four have been distinguished – and they have not all the same active medicinal properties. It takes two or three years to flower from seed.
Propagation is usually by division of roots in the autumn. The underground portion of the plants are dug up after the stem has died down, and the smaller of the ‘daughter’ roots that have developed at the side of the old roots are selected for replanting in December or January to form new stock, the young roots being planted about a foot apart each way. The young shoots appear above ground in February. Although the plants are perennial, each distinct root lasts only one year, the plant being continued by ‘daughter’ roots.
This official Aconite is also the species generally cultivated in gardens, though nearly all the species are worth growing as ornamental garden flowers, the best perhaps being A. Napellus, both white and blue, A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum and A. autumnale. All grow well in shade and under trees. Gerard grew four species in his garden: A. lyocotonum, A. variegatum, A. Napellus and A. Pyrenaicum.
—Part Used—Collection and Drying. The leaves, stem, flowering tops and root: the leaves and tops fresh, the root dried. The leaves and flowering tops are of less importance, they are employed for preparing Extract of Aconitum, and for this purpose are cut when the flowers are just breaking into blossom and the leaves are in their best condition, which is in June.
The roots should be collected in the autumn, after the stem dies down, but before the bud that is to produce the next year’s stem has begun to develop. As this bud grows and forms a flowering stem, in the spring, some of the lateral buds develop into short shoots, each of which produces a long, slender, descending root, crowned with a bud. These roots rapidly thicken, filled with reserve material produced by the parent plant, the root of which dies as the ‘daughter’ roots increase in size. Towards the autumn, the parent plant dies down and the daughter roots which have then reached their maximum development are now full of starch. If allowed to remain in the soil, the buds that crown the daughter roots begin to grow, in the late winter, and this growth exhausts the strength of the root, and the proportion of both starch and alkaloid it contains is lessened.
On account of the extremely poisonous properties of the root, it is considered desirable that the root should be grown and collected under the same conditions, so that uniformity in the drug is maintained. The British Pharmacopceia specifies, therefore, that the roots should be collected in the autumn from plants cultivated in Britain and should consist of the dried, full-grown ‘daughter’ roots: much of the Aconite root that used to come in large quantities from Germany was the exhausted parent root of the wild-flowering plants.
When the roots are dug up, they are sorted over, the smallest laid aside for replanting and the plumper ones reserved for drying. They are first well washed in cold water and trimmed of all rootlets, and then dried, either entire, or longitudinally sliced to hasten drying.
Drying may at first be done in the open air, spread thinly, the roots not touching. Or they may be spread on clean floors or on shelves in a warm place for about ten days, turning frequently. When somewhat shrunken, they must be finished more quickly by artificial heat in a drying room or shed near a stove or gas fire, care being taken that the heated air can escape at the top of the room. Drying in an even temperature will probably take about a fortnight or more. It is not complete till the roots are dry to the core and brittle, snapping when bent.
Dried Aconite root at its upper extremity, when crowned with an undeveloped bud, enclosed by scaly leaves, is about 3/4 inch in diameter, tapering quickly downwards. It is dark brown in colour and marked with the scars of rootlets. The surface is usually longitudinally wrinkled, especially if it has been dried entire. The root breaks with a short fracture and should be whitish and starchy within. A transverse section shows a thick bark, separated from the inner portion by a well-marked darker line, which often assumes a stellate appearance. Aconite root as found in commerce is, however, often yellowish or brownish internally with the stellate markings not clearly shown, probably from having been collected too early. It should be lifted in the autumn of the second year.
Aconite root is liable to attack by insects, and after being well dried should be kept in securely closed vessels.
—Chemical Constituents—Aconite root contains from 0.3 to 1 per cent alkaloidal matter, consisting of Aconitine – crystalline, acrid and highly toxic – with the alkaloids Benzaconine (Picraconitine) and Aconine.
Aconitine, the only crystallizable alkaloid, is present to the extent of not more than 0.2 per cent, but to it is due the characteristic activity of the root. Aconite acid, starch, etc., are also present. On incineration, the root yields about 3 per cent ash.
The Aconitines are a group of highly toxic alkaloids derived from various species of Aconite, and whilst possessing many properties in common are chemically distinguishable according to the source from which they are obtained. The Aconitines are divided into two groups: (1) the Aconitines proper, including Aconitine, Japaconitine and Indaconitine, and (2) the Pseudaconitines – Pseudaconitine and Bikhaconitine.
This disparity between Aconites is a very important matter for investigation, though perhaps not so serious from a pharmaceutical point of view as might at first appear, since in the roots of several different species the alkaloid is found to possess similar physiological action; but this action varies in degree and the amount of alkaloid may be found to vary considerably. It is considered that the only reliable method of standardizing the potency of any of the Aconite preparations is by a physiological method: the lethal dose for the guinea-pig being considered to be the most convenient and satisfactory standard. Tinctures vary enormously as to strength, some proving seven times as powerful as others.
The Aconite which contains the best alkaloid, A. Napellus, is the old-fashioned, familiar garden variety, which may be easily recognized by its very much cut-up leaves, which are wide in the shoulder of the leaf – that part nearest the stem – and also by the purplish-blue flowers, which have the ‘helmet’ closely fitting over the rest of the flower, not standing up as a tall hood. All varieties of Aconite are useful, but this kind with the close set in helmet to the flower is the most valuable.
The Aconite derived from German root of A. Napellus appears to possess somewhat different properties to that prepared from English roots. The German roots may be recognized by the remains of the stem which crown the root. They are also generally less starchy, darker externally and more shrivelled than the English root and considered to be less active, probably because they are generally the exhausted parent roots.
—Medicinal Action and Uses—Anodyne, diuretic and diaphoretic. The value of Aconite as a medicine has been more fully realized in modern times, and it now rank as one of our most useful drugs. It is much used in homoeopathy. On account of its very poisonous nature, all medicines obtained from it come, however, under Table 1 of the poison schedule: Aconite is a deadly poison.
Both tincture and liniment of Aconite are in general use, and Aconite is also used in ointment and sometimes given as hypodermic injection. Preparations of Aconitc are employed for outward application locally to the skin to diminish the pain of neuralgia, lumbago and rheumatism.
The official tincture taken internelly diminishes the rate and force of the pulse in the early stages of fevers and slight local inflammations, such as feverish cold, larnyngitis, first stages of pneumonia and erysipelas; it relieves the pain of neuralgia, pleurisy and aneurism. In cardiac failure or to prevent same it has been used with success, in acute tonsilitis children have been well treated by a dose of 1 to 2 minims for a child 5 to 10 years old; the dose for adults is 2 to 5 minims, three times a day.
—Note—The tincture of Aconite of the British Pharmacopoeia 1914 is nearly double the strength of that in the old Pharmacopoeia of 1898.
Externally the linament as such or mixed with chloroform or belladonna liniment is useful in neuralgia or rheumatism.
—Poisoning from, and Antidotes—The symptons of poisoning are tingling and numbness of tongue and mouth and a sensation of ants crawling over the body, nausea and vomiting with epigastric pain, laboured breathing, pulse irregular and weak, skin cold and clammy, features bloodless, giddiness, staggering, mind remains clear. A stomach tube or emetic should be used at once, 20 minims of Tincture of Digitalis given if available, stimulants should be given and if not retained diluted brandy injected per rectum, artificial respiration and friction, patient to be kept lying down.
All the species contain an active poison Aconitine, one of the most formidable poisons which have yet been discovered: it exists in all parts of the plant, but especially in the root. The smallest portion of either root or leaves, when first put into the mouth, occasions burning and tingling, and a sense of numbness immediately follows its continuance. One-fiftieth grain of Aconitine will kill a sparrow in a few seconds; one-tenth grain a rabbit in five minutes. It is more powerful than prussic acid and acts with tremendous rapidity. One hundredth grain will act locally, so as to produce a well-marked sensation in any part of the body for a whole day. So acrid is the poison, that the juice applied to a wounded finger affects the whole system, not only causing pains in the limbs, but a sense of suffocation and syncope.
Some species of Aconite were well known to the ancients as deadly poisons. It was said to be the invention of Hecate from the foam of Cerberus, and it was a species of Aconite that entered into the poison which the old men of the island of Ceos were condemned to drink when they became infirm and no longer of use to the State. Aconite is also supposed to have been the poison that formed the cup which Medea prepared for Theseus. (Note—Aconite and Belladonna were said to be the ingredients in the witches’ ‘Flying ointments.’ Aconite causes irregular action of the heart, and Belladonna produces delirium. These combined symptoms might give a sensation of ‘flying.’—EDITOR)
Various species of Aconite possess the same narcotic properties as A. Napellus, but none of them equal in energy the A. ferox of the East Indies, the root of which is used there as an energetic poison under the name of Bikh or Nabee. Aconite poisoning of wells by A. ferox has been carried out by native Indians to stop the progress of an army. They also use it for poisoning spears, darts and arrows, and for destroying tigers.
All children should be warned against Aconite in gardens. It is wiser not to grow Aconite among kitchen herbs of any sort. The root has occasionally been mistaken for horse-radish, with fatal results – it is, however, shorter, darker and more fibrous – and the leaves have produced similar fatal results. In Ireland a poor woman once sprinkled powdered Aconite root over a dish of greens, and one man was killed and another seriously affected by it.
In 1524 and 1526 it is recorded that two criminals, to whom the root was given as an experiment, quickly died.
- The older herbalists described it as venomous and deadly. Gerard says: ‘There hath beene little heretofore set down concerning the virtues of the Aconite, but much might be saide of the hurts that have come thereby.’ It was supposed to be an antidote against other poisons. Gerard tells us that its power was ‘So forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causeth them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot moove or stirre untill the herbe be taken away.’ Ben Jonson, in his tragedy Sejanus, says:
- ‘I have heard that Aconite
- Being timely taken hath a healing might
- Against the scorpion’s stroke.’
Linnaeus reports Aconite to be fatal to cattle and goats when they eat it fresh, but when dried it does no harm to horses, a peculiarity in common with the buttercups, to which theAconitesare related. Field-mice are well aware of its evil nature, and in hard times, when they will attack almost any plant that offers them food, they leave this severely alone.—Other Varieties—Japanese Aconite – syn. Aconitum Chinense – is regularly imported in considerable quantities. It used formerly to be ascribed toA. Fischer (Reichb.), but is now considered to be derived from A. uncinatum, var. Faponicum (Regel.) and possibly also from A. volubile (Pallas). It has conical or top-shaped, gradually tapering tuberous roots, 1 to 2 inches long, 1/3 to 1 inch in thickness at the top, externally covered with a brown, closely adhering skin internally white. Dried roots do not contain much alkaloid, if steeped when fresh in a mixture of common salt, vinegar and water. The poisonous alkaloid present is called Japaconitine, to distinguish it from the official Aconitine and the Pseudaconitine of A. laciniatum. Japaconitine is similar in constituents and properties with the Aconitine of A. Napellus.
Indian Aconite root or Nepal Aconite consists of the root of A. laciniatum (Staph.). It is also called Bikh or Bish, and is collected in Nepal. It is much larger than the English variety, being a conical, not suddenly tapering root, 2 to 4 inches long and an inch or more at the top, of a lighter brown than the official variety, the rootlet scars much fewer than the official root. Internally it is hard and almost resinous, the taste intensely acrid and is much shriveiled longitudinally. This root yields a very active alkaloid, Pseudoaconitine, which is allied to Aconitine and resembles it in many of its properties; it is about twice as active as Aconitine. Indian Aconite root was formerly attributed to A. ferox (Wall). Their large size and less tapering character sufficiently distinguish these from the official drug.
Other varieties of Aconite are A. chasmanthum (Staph.), known in India as Mohri, which contains Indaconitine, and A. spicatum, another Indian species containing Bikhaconitine, resembling Pseudaconitine.
Russian Aconite, A. orientale, grows abundantly in the Crimea and Bessarabia. It has a small, compact, greyish-black root with a transverse section similar to that of A. Napellus. Its taste is hot and acrid. When treated by a process which gave 0.0526 per cent of crystalline Aconitine from a sample of powdered root of A. Napellus, the dried root of A. orientale yielded 2.207 per cent of total alkaloids, which were, however, amorphous. The total alkaloid has not yet been investigated further.
A. heterophyllum (Wall), Atis root, is a plant growing in the Western temperate Himalayas. This species does not contain Aconitine and is said to be non-poisonous. Its chief constituent is an intensely bitter alkaloid – Atisine – possessing tonic and antiperiodic principles. A. palmatum, of Indian origin, yields a similar alkaloid, Palmatisine.
The province of Szechwen in West China grows large quantities of medicinal plants, among them A. Wilsoni, which is worth about 4s. per cwt., of which 55,000 lb. a year can be produced in this province; A. Fischeri, about four times the price, of which rather less are yearly available, and A. Hemsleyan, about the same price as the latter, of which about 27,000 lb. are available in an average year.
—Other Species—The Anthora, or Wholesome Aconite described by Culpepper, is a small plant about a foot high, with pale, divided green leaves, and yellow flowers – a native of the Alps. Its stem is erect, firm, angular and hairy; the leaves alternate and much cut into. The flowers are large, hooded with fragrant scent, growing on top of the branches in spikes of a pale yellow colour, smaller than the ordinary Monkshood and succeeded by five horn-like, pointed pods, or achenes, containing five angular seeds. It flowers in July and the seeds ripen at the end of August. The root is tuberous.
Culpepper tells us that the herb was used in his time, but not often. It was reputed to be very serviceable against vegetable poisons and ‘a decoction of the root is a good lotion to wash the parts bitten by venomous creatures.’ . . . ‘The leaves, if rubbed on the skin will irritate and cause soreness and the pollen is also dangerous if blown in the eyes .’
As a matter of fact, this species of Aconite by no means deserves its reputation of harmlessness, for it is only poisonous in a less degree than the rest of the same genus, and the theory that it is a remedy against poison, particularly that of the other Aconites, is now an exploded one.
- Parkinson, speaking of the Yellow Monkshood, calls it:
- ‘The “counter-poison monkeshood” – the roots of which are effectual, not only against the poison of the poisonful Helmet Flower and all others of that kind, but also against the poison of all venomous beasts, the plague or pestilence and other infectious diseases, which raise spots, pockes, or markes in the outward skin, by expelling the poison from within and defending the heart as a most sovereign cordial.’
The so-called Winter Aconite, Aeranthis hyemalis, is not a true Aconite, though closely allied, being also a member of the Buttercup family, whose blossoms it more nearly resembles.