Growing up we commonly hear of the deadly poisonous mushrooms blooming in the nearby parks. We are educated on how to spot and avoid them. However, few of us are familiar with the seemingly innocent but mischievously potent poisonous flowers readily found nationwide. Ingestion of such plants is one of the top 10 causes of poisoning worldwide.
Aconitum plants are one of the more common kinds of poisonous flowers. The name originated from the Greek world “akovitov” meaning without struggle to signify the plants’ rapid deadly effects. They include over 250 different types of flowers which carry the nicknames of “aconite,” “monkshood,” and “wolfsbane.”
These plants prefer to grow in shady areas of mountain meadows all throughout the northern hemisphere and can be incidentally spotted both in the wild and as decorative plants. The flowers are tall with large blue, purple or sometimes white flowers in the form of a cylinder.
Initially grown for their supposed medicinal powers, Aconite is found in many Chinese traditional herbal remedies. More commonly, because of its poisonous capacity Aconite has been used in many popular stories ranging from those of Greek mythology to even modern-day Harry Potter books! (Does the Wolfsbane Potion of the werewolves ring a bell?)
The specific mechanism of how the Aconite flower leads to death is quite complex. Its main actions center around our cardiovascular system, which includes our heart, the blood vessels that run to and from it, and all the energy and electricity needed to keep the heart going. One of the most important elements for our heart health is none other than the main ingredient in simple salt – that is, sodium!
Sodium makes up less than 1% of our total body volume, but without it we would not be alive today! One of Sodium’s more important roles is its help in the generation of energy for our muscles. The heart, one very strong bundle of muscles, requires a well regulated amount of Sodium to be readily available at all times. Other organs like the kidneys help our body maintain a pretty constant amount of Sodium floating around our cells. When this concentration is altered in any way, our body’s energy production system is jeopardized leaving the heart scrambling to keep beating.
Aconite tampers with our body’s ability to precisely regulate the amount of Sodium available in our body. In turn, the heart beat becomes very irregular disallowing for steady blood flow to the rest of our organs—a process called arrhythmia. Since blood carries oxygen, essential for all life, without proper blood supply all organs, including the brain, begin to slowly shut down.
The severity of the poisoning depends on the amount of the flower eaten. For mice, a lethal dose is less than ¼ of a milligram; for humans 2 mg may be enough to prove fatal. Initial symptoms may include sneezing, sweating and chills, feelings of weakness, and a numbing sensation around the mouth. Overtime, the numbness can spread and more serious side effects like vomiting, diarrhea will begin. The heart rate can initially slow down or can speed up and be “irregular.” Overtime, as the brain continues to be deprived of blood and oxygen it begins to shut down leading to confusion and even seizures. Most people die because of the initial shock on the heart and the deadly effects of arrhythmia. These symptoms can begin after 3 minutes to 2 hours after ingestion of the flower, but typically start within 10-20 minutes.
There are no known antidotes for the Aconite flowers, and most of the things doctors can do in the hospital attempt to only buy time and help the body rid itself of the poison. Treatments include cleansing the stomach of the ingested flowers; making sure the patient is able to breath by supporting the airway; and providing adequate amounts of oxygen. Fortunately, serious poisoning from plants is rare in children because the quantity of the plant required to cause serious poisoning is usually greater than what a small child ingests. Serious toxicity or death is a common risk for household pets; in adults, fatality usually occurs as a result of intentional abuse by those trying to hurt themselves or others.
The beautiful Aconite flowers entice onlookers by their bright outer coloration but pose a very dangerous threat on the inside. Kids and adults must beware of these deadly plants, always handle them with gloves, and wash any clothing which may have come in contact with the flowers. With a good ability to spot these plants and a few precautionary guidelines Aconite poisoning can become just a story of the past rather than a realistic threat in our communities.
- Daubert GP. Chapter 5. Aconite and Other Sodium Channel Openers. In: Olson KR, ed. Poisoning & Drug Overdose. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=55972774. Accessed January 22, 2013.
- Hostetler MA, Schneider SM. Chapter 215. Poisonous Plants. In: Tintinalli JE, Stapczynski JS, Cline DM, Ma OJ, Cydulka RK, Meckler GD, eds. Tintinalli’s Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011. http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=6386032. Accessed January 22, 2013.
- Chan TY (April 2009). “Aconite poisoning”. Clin Toxicol (Phila) 47 (4): 279 85 PMID 19514874.
- Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, Third Edition by Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey, Erich Stoger, and Andrew Gamble (Hardcover – Sep 2004)