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What is Aconitum?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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Aconitum is a genus of flowering plants that belong to the Ranunculaceae family and is known by many names, including leopard's and women's bane, blue rocket, and monkshood. There are at least 250 species of these tall, erect plants that come in varying shades of blue and purple, yellow, white, and pink. Although certain parts of these plants are considered highly poisonous, they are still sometimes used as herbal remedies for head colds and fevers, stress and restlessness, pain, and inflammation.

Native to mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere, these plants are herbaceous perennials. Although there may be small variances throughout the species, most bear a similar structure. For instance, most aconitum are upright-growing plants that sprout deep green leaves and a characteristic cylindrical part of the flower that looks like a helmet. Atop the tall stems bloom large clusters of colorful flowers.

Throughout the years, many species of the aconitum have been used for a variety of purposes. In mythology, the aconitum was said to be used by Medea to poison Theseus, while in Japan it was used to help hunt and trap bears. Despite their history as deadly toxins, these plants have also long been used in medicine.

Aconitum napellus is one of the more common species used for folk remedies. Often called aconite, almost the entire plant — leaves, roots and flowers — may be used in small doses to aid in treating everything from high blood pressure to a painful cough. Many homeopaths recommend this plant for treating anxiety, especially before and after surgery. In addition, aconitum is regularly mixed with other plants to help fight off the flu or speed the recovery time of muscle strains and sprains.

Although aconitum has a long history in folk and traditional medicine, many modern scientists feel that there is not enough evidence for its effectiveness to outweigh the potential risks. These plants contain a highly toxic concentration of alkaloids that, at first contact, may cause a tingling sensation at the site and which, if taken internally, may spread throughout the body. As the symptoms of aconitum poisoning progress, the patient may feel cold or clammy, and may develop diarrhea and vomiting, have difficulty breathing, and experience a weak or irregular pulse. If left untreated, these symptoms can potentially lead to death. It is important to speak with a physician or well-trained homeopath before taking any supplement or cream that contains this plant.

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