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Wednesday - February 27, 2008

From: Baltimore., MD
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Plant Identification
Title: Information about native aconitum
Answered by: Barbara Medford


There was a picture of a plant in our local newspaper this past week. In the photo ID they called this plant an aconite, a member of the buttercup family. My questions are: is there such a plant? is it a native or what? what is the botanical name? resources on where to obtain this plant? and the usual other questions. I am from Baltimore, Md., picture was from Boonsboro, Md. Thank you for any help.


Indeed, there is such a plant, quite a few species of it, in fact. It is sometimes referred to as monkshood, because of the hooded shape of the flowers. It also has the common name of "wolfsbane" because the ancient Germans used it to poison wolves. And therein lies the problem with using any of these species as garden plants. The plant is distributed generally in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. There are some native to Europe and at least four native to North America, which is what the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center centers on. They are really lovely in appearance, with blue flowers that do, indeed, look like little hoods. Unfortunately, there are deadly alkaloids in all parts of the plant; with the most concentration in the roots. They are particularly dangerous for children because of their small size and curiosity. The aconitums (or aconite) are members of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, and it's hard to believe something with such a sweet-sounding background can be so deadly, but it's true. While we're sure there are sources where you can obtain these plants, we recommend that you do not do so. There are too many beautiful blooming plants which will thrive in Baltimore to run the risk of planting a poisonous one like this.

Here are the four aconitums native to North America that are found in our Native Plant Database, with pictures so you can identify them if you see them:

Aconitum columbianum (Columbian monkshood)

Aconitum delphiniifolium (larkspurleaf monkshood)

Aconitum noveboracense (northern blue monkshood)

Aconitum uncinatum (southern blue monkshood)

Now, may we suggest four possible replacements for aconitums. All of these can be found in Maryland, all have blue flowers, all bloom in the summer, and are similar in appearance to the aconitums, but much more benign. We will also insert pictures of these North American natives.

Gentiana andrewsii (closed bottle gentian) blooms August to October

Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia) blooms July to October

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) blooms March to June

Scutellaria ovata (heartleaf skullcap) blooms April to June

Aconitum columbianum

Aconitum delphiniifolium

Aconitum noveboracense

Aconitum uncinatum

Gentiana andrewsii

Lobelia siphilitica

Mertensia virginica

Scutellaria ovata













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