The aconite flower, also known as monkshood, is an attractive herbaceous wildflower. The plants can be found growing in mountain meadows all across the northern hemisphere.
The aconite flower is an increasingly popular addition to the garden because of its purple blue blooms and attractive foliage. Further adding to the attraction is the plant’s moderate to slow growth habit, meaning that it rarely outgrows its space in the garden.
There are around 250 types of aconite flower. Of them, Aconitum napellus is the most commonly grown ornamental variety.
If you want to learn more about the aconite flower, including how to grow and plant it, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know. We will also highlight some of the more attractive and unusual cultivars currently available.
Wolfsbane is an increasingly popular addition to the mixed flower garden.
What is an Aconite Flower?
Like the delphinium, these plants are members of the ranunculaceae or buttercup family. The aconite flower typically blooms from May until October. In favorable climates some varieties may begin flowering earlier in the spring or continue to bloom well into the fall. Typically, 38 to 42 inches tall, when in full bloom mature specimens can reach up to 4 ft in certain climates. Most varieties also achieve a spread of between 1 and 2 ft.
The aconite flower is commonly known as Monkshood. This name refers to the shape of the bloom. This is said to resemble the cowl worn by monks. The plants are also sometimes called Wolfsbane or Aconitum. The name Wolfsbane refers to the ancient use of the perennial monskhood’s ground root. It was often mixed with a meaty bait and set as a trap to kill wolves.
The foliage is usually hand shaped, or palmate, with lobed fingers. These can have toothed edges and, depending on the variety, vary in color from dark to light green.
During the early fall and late summer months, floral spikes emerge. While blue and purple blooming types are the most common, yellow and white flowering varieties can also be found.
Blue or purple blooms sit above palmate foliage.
A perennial plant, most varieties are hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 7.
Ideal for mixed planting schemes, the aconitum plant is best used as a background plant. The aconite flower is not considered an invasive species. The plants are resistant to both deer and rabbits.
The aconite flower can be divided into 2 groups; Aconitum and Eranthis.
Aconitum plants, also known as Monkshood, are summer blooming plants. They are also poisonous.
Aconitum plants have broad roots, some may have rhizomes. The leaves are hand or finger-like. Each lobe is divided into 3 and can be toothed. The blooms are hooded, growing in spike-like groups, and typically blue or purple in color. Each bloom has between two and five petals.
The Eranthis or Winter Aconite is a spring blooming ornamental plant. The Eranthis bloom typically has five to eight yellow sepals. A solitary bloom, it develops on a short stem. Most Eranthis cultivars develop a crown of leaves around the base of the flower. The Eranthis genus is ideal for providing groundcover in shady spots.
Eranthis blooms during the spring months.
The name aconitum comes from the Latin word for poison. All members of the Aconitum genus are poisonous.
Do not grow the plants within the reach of children or animals. All parts are considered highly toxic, including the sap. Wear work gloves and a long sleeved top when handling the aconitum plant. Wash your hands and any tools used afterwards.
Despite being highly poisonous, the aconite flower also has medicinal uses. Parts of the plant have been used to relieve asthma, laryngitis and pneumonia symptoms. They can also be used to reduce cold related fevers.
The active compounds contained in these plants, if properly extracted, can help to lower blood pressure levels, reduce inflammation and swellings and ease pain.
In traditional Asian remedies the root extracts are often mixed with ginger to amplify their qualities.
In Western medicine, the aconite flower has been used as an anti-irritant tincture. It is also used in homeopathic medicine to reduce anxiety and restlessness.
In the wild the aconite flower is a reliable source of food for many types of moths and caterpillars. Over time the blooms have evolved to be pollinated by bumblebees with long tongues. The Aconitum lycoctonum variety is also a reliable source of nectar for butterflies.
As aconitum grows in popularity, the plant is becoming easier to find in garden stores and plant nurseries. You should never just dig up wild plants to replant in your garden. As well as destroying part of the local ecosystem you run the risk of transporting disease and pests back to your garden.
As well as plants, you can also buy seeds from garden stores and plant nurseries. In catalogs and online stores the aconite flower is often listed as wolfsbane or monkshood.
Where to Plant
Once planted the aconite flower doesn’t like to be moved. This means that you must select your planting position carefully.
Ideally, monkshood should be planted in a similar position to where it grows in the wild. The soil should be moderate, not too rich nor too poor. The aconite flower can become leggy if planted in soil that is overly rich. A soil test kit provides an easy way to measure the condition of your soil, enabling you to make any necessary amendments before planting.
The soil should also be evenly moist or well draining. The roots rot and drown if the soil is too wet.
While the aconite flower can tolerate some shade, most varieties do better in full sun positions. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 7, as long as the summer isn’t too warm. In hotter areas the plants are better placed in a partial shade position.
In the wild, these plants thrive in open, sunny meadows.
Be careful when planting in the shade. Too much shade can encourage the aconite flower to grow tall as it stretches towards the sunlight. Plants in shady positions may require some staking or support from a Bamboo Plant Stake.
Ideally, wolfsbane plants should be positioned somewhere that enjoys lots of morning sun and some afternoon shade. A drooping head or stem means that the plant isn’t receiving enough light.
Avoid planting your aconitum plant anywhere that is overly hot and humid. These are cool weather loving plants.
How to Grow from Seed
While wolfsbane is commonly purchased as a young plant, you can also grow them from seed. However the aconite flower is not the easiest plant to start from seed. The process can be time consuming and prone to failure. To safeguard against this, many growers like to start more seeds than they need. That way, if some fail, they should still have some successful plants.
Seeds should be just ripe, not too mature. This avoids a long dormant period.
Wolfsbane plants dislike being moved or transplanted. This means that seeds should be started in the final growing position in late fall. Aconitum plants require exposure to a winter chill before breaking their dormancy.
You can also start the seeds undercover in individual biodegradable Peat Pots. The plants, still in the pots, can then be transplanted into the garden in the spring. As the plants grow the pots breakdown, allowing the roots to spread. Fill the pots with a good quality potting soil.
Sow the seeds on top of the prepared potting medium or soil. Moistening the soil before planting encourages the seeds to stick in place. Cover with a thin layer of grit.
Aconitum plants can be ephemeral in their first year. So if they disappear, don’t worry it is not necessarily a disaster. Continue to water the soil and they may return.
How to Plant Wolfsbane
Before planting, weed the soil, remove any stones and break up clumps of earth. You should also work in any necessary amendments at least two weeks before planting. This gives the soil time to resettle.
As the soil settles, use the time to harden off your plants. Hardening off plants helps them to better settle in their new growing position and reduces the chances of transplant shock.
Wolfsbane seeds are best started in their final growing position. Prepare the soil before sowing.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole in the soil roughly the same size, or slightly larger, than the pot currently holding the aconite flower. Aim to plant your chosen specimen to the same depth as it sat when in the pot. To check the size of the hole, place the plant, still in its pot, in the hole. You may need to enlarge the hole or backfill it slightly before planting.
When you are happy, carefully remove the plant from its container. If you have started seeds in biodegradable pots, the plants can simply be placed, still in their pots, in the hole. Backfill the hole and water well.
You can also grow aconitum in containers. Fill clean pots with a fresh potting soil and plant as described above.
Continue to water the soil regularly until the plants are established and new growth is visible. Don’t be too disheartened if new growth doesn’t appear straight away. The aconite flower often takes a while to fully establish itself.
If you are planting in an exposed or breezy position the plants may also require staking. The stake is best installed when planting. Placing it in position later may damage the spreading roots.
As they grow plants may require some support to stay upright.
Caring for an Aconite Flower
Once established the aconitum plant is a pleasingly low maintenance addition to the garden.
Regularly weed the soil around the plants. A weed wacker is a great investment if you are tending a larger area of soil.
The aconitum plant requires regular watering. These are thirsty plants that thrive in moist soil. Frequent watering is particularly important during the spring, when the plant is actively growing. Once established, the aconite flower can withstand short dry spells. However, if you want to encourage lots of lush blooms and attractive foliage, regularly watering the plants is important.
While they require regular watering, be careful not to overwater wolfsbane plants. The soil should not become too wet or waterlogged. If you struggle to find a balanced watering routine a soil moisture sensor is a useful investment.
If your soil is rich in organic matter, regular fertilizing is not necessary. Simply side dress the plants with compost and a little organic fertilizer each spring.
Late season plants, the aconitum plant rarely repeat blooms. This means that there is no need to deadhead the plants. The spent blooms can be allowed to fade on the stem. The plant dies back at the first frost.
Cut the plants back in the fall. In cooler areas a protective layer of mulch or mulch substitute should be placed around the base of the plant. This should be removed in the spring, before any new growth emerges.
Powdery mildew may develop during the summer months. Affected foliage should be pruned away and destroyed. Regularly watering the soil around the plants helps to prevent this problem from developing or returning.
The aconite flower, once established, dislikes being disturbed. If you do need to move the plants or wish to propagate new ones, perennial types can be divided. However, this is not always successful.
Mature plants, if not divided, may start to develop gaps in the center, where the old wood is located. Dividing the plants helps to rejuvenate the central growth.
Divisions are best made in early spring as new growth appears.
To divide, carefully dig around the plant. Try not to damage the root system as you do this. Gently lift the plant from the soil.
Tease the roots apart. Remember they are fragile and dislike a lot of handling. Separate the larger root system into smaller crowns, each should have a healthy amount of root and foliage, if present.
Replant the new, smaller crowns just below the soil surface.
Different Aconite Flower Varieties
There are over 250 plants in the aconitum genus. A further 8 belong to the Eranthis genus. The following specimens are some of the most commonly grown or attractive plants.
The yellow blooms of Yellow Monkshood, Aconitum anthora, are a common sight across many European mountain ranges such as the Caprathians and the Alps. The name anthora refers to the old belief that these plants were an antidote to the fatal aconitum plant. The roots contain essential oils and volatile salts. Other parts of the plant have useful alkaloids that can be used to treat pains and respiratory tract disorders.
Carmichaels Monkshood, Aconitum carmichaelii, is native to East Asia and parts of Eastern Russia. One of the taller types of aconite flower, Carmichaels Monkshood can reach almost 4 ft tall. This means that these plants have a pleasing upright growth habit. Blooming in late summer and early fall the entire plant is toxic.
When in bloom, these are tall, elegant plants.
Western Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum, is a type of aconite flower that grows wild in many parts of North America. Thriving in coniferous forests, meadows and moist soil, it is particularly common in elevations above 600 meters. A tall erect plant with typical lobed leaves and wrinkly petals in shades of purple, blue, yellow and white this is one of the most eye-catching varieties.
There are a number of attractive Western Monkshood cultivars including Howell’s monkshood and Viviparum.
Larkspur Leaf Monkshood
Producing eye-catching blue blooms, Larkspur Leaf blooms earlier than other types of aconite flower, typically blooming during June and July. In the wild these plants are commonly found in many parts of Alaska and Canada. Here they can usually be found growing in meadows or on the banks along streams.
Larkspur Leaf Monkshood plants favor partial shade positions and rich soil. A perennial specimen, the straight stem can reach up to 28 inches in height. When in bloom small clusters of dark blue hooded blooms sit above smooth, cleft foliage.
Best cultivated in temperate areas, the Fischer cultivar is native to Korea and Siberia. When in bloom, bright, showy blooms bring lots of ornamental attraction.
The colorful blooms provide lots of ornamental interest.
Spark’s Variety Monkshood
Native to a number of Chinese provinces, where it freely grows in forests and mountainous areas, Spark’s Variety typically blooms from September to October. The blue blooms are sparse on the stem sitting above divided green foliage. There are a number of different Spark’s Variety cultivars as well as hybrids available.
A perennial shrub variety, the Aconitum Coreanum variety has a thick, robust root system. Typically found growing in mountainous valleys, like other types of aconite flower, Aconitum Coreanum prefers moist or damp soil.
Once established, Aconitum Coreanum can reach around 3 ft in height. Blooming from July to August, Aconitum Coreanum blooms are typically pale yellow. Native to Eastern Russia, Mongolia, Korea and China, like other types of aconite flower it is highly poisonous.
Southern Blue Monkshood
Southern Blue, also known as wild monkshood, is happiest when sitting in a moist or wet soil. The plant is commonly found growing along rivers and streams across the upper Atlantic Coastal Plain or in the Appalachian mountains.
As well as the common blue purple blooming varieties, pale blue, yellow and white blooming types can also be found.
Common in many parts of Europe and northern Asia, Northern Wolfsbane is a herbaceous cultivar. Capable of reaching up to 3 ft in height, the blooms, which sit above lobed foliage, are 18 to 25 mm in size and typically dark violet in color. Yellow flowering types can also be found.
Another type that is native to Europe, in this case western and central areas, the blooms can be dark purple to blue-purple in color. These sit on hairless stems above segmented foliage. There are nine recognized subspecies including Firmum, Corsicum and Hianus.
Garden Monkshood, also known as Aconitum plicatum, is another type of aconite flower that is native to many European countries including Germany and Poland. The blooms, in shades of blue and purple, sit sparsely on the elegant stalks above pleasant green foliage.
Eranthis, also known as Winter Aconite, is an attractive specimen. The Eranthis genus is native to Asia and parts of southern Europe. Just as poisonous as aconitum plants, Eranthis typically grows on forest floors where it basks in filtered sunshine. If the tree canopy is too dense the foliage dies away.
The open blooms of Eranthis are popular with pollinators.
When treated with care the aconite flower is an elegant, low maintenance addition to the mixed flower garden.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.