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Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite

Summary

An excellent example of the confusion which common names can cause, this, relatively, innocent first flower of spring is, sometimes, accused of being as deadly as plants in the Aconitum genus.

Blog Entries

Read more about Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite, in these blog entries (most recent first);
How the name aconite was given to this plant

Family

Ranunculaceae

Meaning of the Name

Eranthis
From the Greek 'er' for spring plus 'anthis' for flower.

hyemalis
belonging to winter, 'hyems' 

Common Names and Synonyms

winter aconite, aconite

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

As a member of the Ranunculaceae family, it is expected to be poisonous but there is no consensus over the poisonous component(s). Protoanemonin is present in many genera in the family but has not be isolated from Eranthis.

Ingestion of very large quantities might produce stomach upset but the plant does not appear on the HTA list of potentially hazardous plants.

Incidents

There are no reported cases of any creature, human or otherwise, being poisoned by Eranthis hyemalis.

Folklore and Facts

The following paragraph, which was in the original version of this page, is wrong but, as it turns out, only partly.

There is no clear reason for naming this plant 'aconite'. It is just possible that it results from confusion with the yellow-flowering Aconitum anthora.

I'm grateful to Dr. Henry Oakeley, an expert on the history of plant use for medicinal purposes, for explaining that plants were grouped together purely on the appearance of the leaves. The leaves of Eranthis hyemalis are similar to those of the Aconitum genus and, ignoring the difference in height and flowers, this was enough for it to be classed as an aconite. So, there was a reason for the overlapping names and it was based on physical similarity but of the leaves and not the yellow flowers of the anthora species.

Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite    Aconitum napellus, monkshood

Eranthis hyemalis on the left with foliage of Aconitum napellus on the right.

I should have looked at Gerard's herbal because he calls this plant Aconitum hyemale, Winter Woolfes-bane.

It may be, and this is purely speculation, that this is an extension of the Doctrine of Signatures. If a plant looked like the condition it cured, then plants looking alike would cure the same condition and must, by that logic, be related to each other.

Some sources, especially online and including some prominent reference sites, recite the story of Cerebus and his spit in relation to this plant and describe it as extremely poisonous and claim it was used to poison arrows.

The CD-ROM produced by Kew Gardens and the Medical Toxicology Unit at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital states that there are no reported cases of poisoning and says that no conclusive analysis of the plant is available.