Northern Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium)
We’re posting this Northern Monkshood, found on the westside flower garden bordering Lower Dewey lake above Skagway, Alaska this summer, even though we’ve not yet posted the more common western columbianum Monkshood. We find this species’ slim profile and rounded hood shape particularly charming. Although lacking a ‘spur’, it otherwise resembles in foliage and midnight blue color, its Larkspur (delphinium) cousin, explaining the latin name.
Like Larkspur, it contains alkaloids highly poisonous to livestock and humans. Although Larkspur’s toxins are limited to seeds and young leaves, all parts of the Monkshood contain the potent aconitum alkaloids. Indeed many cultures, including Greeks, Romans, and native cultures have used Monkshood dipped hunting implements to poison their prey, including whales in the case of Inuit tribes.
Much of the sinister folklore associated with Monkshood seems to come from it poisonous qualities. Norwegians called it “Odin’s Helmet”, as it supposedly resembled the mythological ‘cap of darkness’ that made its wearer invisible, while Germans called it “Devil’s Herb” and associated it with witches. The Greeks associated it with the goddess Hecate whose knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants aided her magic and witchcraft. In the same vein, it is also called wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet, queen of poisons, and blue rocket.
The unique hooded shape of the upper flower sepal makes it challenging for pollinators to reach its nectar. Bumblebees, having found a way in, are said to remain faithful and only pollinate this species afterward.