Wolfbane and Other Garden Evils

The ancient herbals are rich with instruction on how to use this infamous plant, wolfbane.

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Many old plants such as borage are no longer popular, yet they figure largely in English herbal literature. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)

"Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms ... and the autumn moon is bright."

This famous poem from the 1941 classic film "The Wolfman" speaks of plants that signal a time of magical transformation. Those unfortunates attacked by a werewolf change under the light of the full moon into the very beast that bit them.

The ancient herbals are rich with instruction on how to use this infamous plant, wolfbane. It is a blue flowering perennial of Europe that ancient Roman physician Dioscorides referred to as lycotonum. This name is linked with the phenomenon lycanthropy, the turning of a human into a wolf when the moon is full. It's derived from the Greek for lykoi or "wolf" and anthropos, "man."

Many fresh herbs are difficult to identify and many medicinal types such as Acontium contain powerful, potentially deadly alkaloids. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)
Even today Third World countries still depend on herbs for traditional medicine and plants are actively used by spiritual folk healers. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)
Botanical drawings of wolfbane as it would have appeared in old herbals. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself / DIY)

Lycanthropy has been recently proven to be a bonafide genetic anomaly which causes excess hair growth over the entire body. This gives the unfortunate person a furry animal-like appearance. But until a century ago, those suffering lycanthropy or thought to be a werewolf were hunted down and killed. It's debatable, though, whether anyone dispatched a werewolf with silver bullet or bludgeoning with a silver cane head as Lon Chaney did.

What they did know is that the highly toxic juice of the wolfbane plant, now known as monkshood, Aconitum napellus, could indeed kill wolves. Arrows tipped with it or baits laced with this plant would poison the predators that once prowled Europe. Naturally it was thought Acontium would destroy the curse of a wolfman as well.

This is no wonder because wolfbane is so deadly it fills the herbal literature since the earliest times. The legendary poison was created by Hecate, Greek goddess of the underworld. It was powerful enough to ward off werewolves if hung on a door or grown around a house.

Wolfbane is a great example of how to better understand old herbals and traditional names of medicinal plants. The English language herbals, originally written by hand, became far more common knowledge after 15th century invention of printing press. The two primary authors are Gerard and Culpepper, whose original herbals are still in print today. They are compendiums of accumulated plant lore and botanical cures invaluable when plants held the only medicines available.

The apothecaries of old left some keys in the common names that will help you better know these plants. Like wolfbane, there are many other "bane" plants. Strictly defined, any plant that harms or spoils something is the "bane" of its existence. For example, fleabane, Mentha pulegium, contains a pungent oil that has long been used to drive fleas from dwellings and animals.

A plant with the suffix "wort" can be construed as the opposite of "bane". A wort will be beneficial in healing and magic. One example is St. Johnswort, Hypericum perforatum Linneus, who later devised the system of binomial nomenclature, also identified the official healing plants with a botanical species name, "officinalis". Examples include garden sage is Salvia officinalis and common rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis.

Thanks to the Internet you can go straight to this old literature online. The web site, www.botanical.com has placed M. Grieve's thousand page "A Modern Herbal" online. It is one of the best detailed references of old and new plant usage today, incorporating information from many old English herbals.

Modern genetics may explain the wolfman, but we still love old myths brought to life in movies. Although we may grow our herbs for civilized scent and seasoning, you'll be surprised to discover they are still grown as well by those who want a magic herb garden. Or to grow witch bane and banes in general.

And then there's always ...

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble." Or so wrote William Shakespeare in the witches scene in "Macbeth."

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network.

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