Human Flower Project
One for the Hemlock Society
Frances Cushing, who works at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, arrived one night for dinner with a bunch of luscious and unfamiliar purple flowers. She handed them to us, grinning with delight: “They’re very poisonous!”
It was Monkshood (thanks, Jeremy), Aconitum delphinifolium, also known as Bumblebee Flower. Also known as whale killer.
Heather Pringle writes that the Alutiiq of Southern Alaska used monkshood in whaling, coating their spears with a concoction made of boiled monkshood root and human fat (one wonders where they acquired that).
“To prepare for the hunt, the whalers removed themselves from their villages, sequestering in remote island caves. Far from the curious, they prepared the poison, boiling the roots of the monkshead plant and mixing the fluid with human fat. So deadly was the resulting mixture, they believed, that birds merely flying above could drop dead from the sky. When the unguent was finally ready, the men applied it to special spearheads fashioned from slate—thin, needle sharp weapons that could penetrate a whale’s thick skin.”
If the spears themselves didn’t kill the whale, toxins from the monkshood would paralyze the creature’s nervous system or heart. (Keep those blooms off the dinnertable!)
Aconitum delphinifolium, Monkshood, growing on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Photo: The Saltonstalls