Aconite is the common name for any of 100 or more related species in the Aconitum genus. Two of the species, Aconitum napellus and Aconitum carmichaeli are used medicinally. The more popular remedy, Aconitum napellus, is a plant that grows in mountainous regions of Central Asia, Russia, Europe, and Great Britain. This perennial plant from the Ranunculaceae family grows to a height of 3 ft (1 m) and has dark green, glossy leaves and dark blue flowers.
Other names for aconite are wolf's bane, monkshood, blue rocket, and friar's cap. Wolf's bane is a direct translation of the Greek word Lycotonum. The Greeks left the plant as poisonous bait for wolves or anointed arrows with the juice of the herb in order to kill wolves. The plant was nicknamed monkshood and friar's cap because of the shape of the flowers.
The plant in its fresh form is highly poisonous. The poison comes from the toxic alkaloid aconitine. Aconitine is found in the whole plant but is mainly concentrated in the root. Symptoms of poisoning include tingling, numbness of the tongue and mouth, nausea and vomiting , labored breathing, a weak and irregular pulse, and cold, clammy skin. Even the smallest amounts of aconitine inside the mouth cause burning, tingling, and numbness. As little as 2 mg of aconitine can cause death in as little as 4 hours, which may be one reason why aconite is often chosen by people attempting suicide by poison. The Australian government has declared all species of aconite "unfit for human consumption."
Herbalists have used aconite as a medicine for hundreds of years. However, in ancient times the herb was known more for its power to kill rather than heal; it was often used in ancient Rome to commit murders.
The herb acts as a diuretic (a substance that promotes urination) and diaphoretic (a substance that causes sweating). Tinctures are taken internally to slow fevers, pneumonia, laryngitis , and acute tonsillitis . Liniments or ointments made from the herb are applied externally to relieve the pain of neuralgia and rheumatism.
Aconitum carmichaeli is used in traditional Chinese medicine . It is called Fu Zi (sometimes Fu Tzu) in Mandarin; in other parts of China and in Hong Kong it is known as chuan wou tou.. This herb is used to treat rheumatism, bruises , arthritis, acute hypothermia, diarrhea , and impotence . The herb is very hot and has a sweet, spicy taste.
The main function of Fu Zi is to warm the interior. It also works to restore collapsed yang, warm Kidney fire, warm the Kidney and Spleen, drive out the cold, warm the meridians, and relieve pain. Fu Zi is also used by traditional Chinese herbalists in conditions marked by deficient Kidney and Spleen yang or in conditions with early morning diarrhea or lack of appetite.
Aconitum carmichaeli also contains the toxic alkaloid aconitine. After cooking the herb, the alkaloid is converted to aconine, which is not as toxic.
This herb is poisonous. When it is properly prepared as recommended by a Chinese medicine practitioner, there are rarely any adverse effects. Chinese pharmacies do not sell raw, untreated aconite, as the plant should be dried and then brewed for long periods of time. There have been, however, cases of aconite poisoning reported in Asian countries, including some that ended in the patient's death from heart arrhythmias. It appears that most of these cases are due either to the herbalist's prescribing a larger dose of aconite than is needed, or to the patient's attempting to prepare the remedy at home.
Homeopaths prescribe aconite for conditions that come on suddenly as a result of grief, fear, anger, shock, or exposure to cold, dry wind. It is also recommended for people troubled by suicidal thoughts. The remedy is short-acting and is indicated at the onset of acute conditions such as croup , colds, cough, bronchitis , eye and ear infections , headaches, and rheumatism. This remedy is one of the best for measles , arthritis, and pneumonia when all of the symptoms are present. Aconite is also useful at the beginning of a fever , in early stages of inflammation, and following shock caused by an injury or surgery.
Aconite is available as a homeopathic remedy or in dried bulk form, as an ointment or liniment, and as a tincture. Pharmacies, health food stores, and Chinese herbal stores carry the various preparations. They are also available as prescribed by a herbalist, homeopathic doctor, or Chinese medicine practitioner.
The whole plant is used in Western herbal medicine. The leaves and flowers are cut when the flowers are in blossom in June. The roots are collected after the stem has died off, usually in August. The root is dried before use while the leaves, stems, and flowers are used fresh.
The homeopathic preparation of aconite is created in the following manner. The whole plant—but not the root—is collected when the flowers are in full bloom and pounded to a pulp. The juice from the pulp is pressed and mixed with alcohol. The mixture is then strained and diluted. The final homeopathic remedy is created after the diluted mixture is repeatedly succussed (pounded against a hard surface to break down and mix the substance). The remedy is available at health-food and drug stores in various potencies in the form of tinctures, tablets, and pellets.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the aconite root is generally used in small amounts in combination with other herbs.
If symptoms do not improve after the recommended time period, consult your homeopath or other healthcare practitioner.
Do not exceed the recommended dosage.
Use Aconitum carmichaeli only under supervision of a Chinese medical practitioner.
Aconite is poisonous and should not be consumed in its raw state. Persons who gather wild plants to eat should be very careful in identifying what they are gathering; cases have been reported of aconite poisoning in people who thought they were gathering "mountain chicory."
Women who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or who are breast-feeding should not use Aconitum carmichaeli.
Symptoms of poisoning by the fresh aconite plant include tingling, numbness of the tongue and mouth, nausea, vomiting, labored breathing, a weak and irregular pulse, and cold, clammy skin. In cases of severe poisoning, aconite can produce extreme symptoms that include severe pain, convulsions, paralysis, confusion, seizures, and heart failure. The only established treatment for aconite poisoning is supportive; that is, there is no antidote.
Most liniments or lotions made with aconite for external use contain a 1.3% concentration of the herb. Use of these preparations must be limited to unbroken skin, as aconite can be absorbed through the skin and cause toxic symptoms. If a skin reaction occurs, use of the liniment must be discontinued immediately.
When taking any homeopathic remedy, do not use peppermint products, coffee, or alcohol. These products will make the remedy ineffective.
Aconitum carmichaeli should not be used in those having a deficiency of yin, or coolness, or with signs of heat such as fever, redness, and agitation.
Cummings, Stephen, M.D., and Dana Ullman. Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines. New York: Putnam, 1997.
Reid, Daniel. Chinese Herbal Medicine. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1996.
Chan, T. Y. "Incidence of Herb-Induced Aconitine Poisoning in Hong Kong: Impact of Publicity Measures to Promote Awareness Among the Herbalists and the Public." Drug Safety 25 (2002): 823-828.
Elliott, S. P. "A Case of Fatal Poisoning with the Aconite Plant: Quantitative Analysis in Biological Fluid." Science and Justice 42 (April-June 2002): 111-115.
Gaibazzi, N., G. P. Gelmini, G. Montresor, et al. "Case Study of Accidental Aconite Poisoning." [in Italian] Italian Heart Journal 3 (August 2002): 874-877.
American Academy of Clinical Toxicology. 777 East Park Drive, P. O. Box 8820, Harrisburg, PA 17105. (717) 558-7750. <http://www.clintox.org>.
National Center for Homeopathy. 801 N. Fairfax St., Suite 306, Alexandria, VA 22314. (703) 548-7790.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
ac·o·nite / ˈakəˌnīt/ • n. a poisonous plant (genus Aconitum) of the buttercup family, including monkshood. Native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, it bears hooded pink or purple flowers. ∎ an extract of such a plant, used as a poison or in medicinal preparations.