GARDENING / Strangely familiar: 5 Aconitum

ACONITUMS are a sinister group of plants, famous for their poisonous properties, but they are familiar cottage garden flowers. Part of their fascination is their legendary power. However, they are probably not much more dangerous to have in the garden than the poisonous laburnum.

Wolf's-bane is one of the more common names for aconitum, though gardening books refer to it more politely as monk's- hood. Where delphiniums are difficult to grow, the deep-blue hooded flowers of most aconitum varieties are useful alternatives. They make tall blue flowered columns at the back of a border. 'Stately' is how they are often described. And unlike many of the statelier flowers they are often self-supporting, because their flowers are not very heavy and their stems are stiff.

Wolf's-bane is happy in shade on horrible soil, but it does not despise the sun. The wicked blue Aconitum napellus, the most common form - according to Alice M Coats, that recorder of every interesting plant legend - is named after a hill where Hercules fought Cerberus. From the spit of the beast the plant was born. Once you know that, aconitums may lose their appeal, but there are a few that look much less threatening, although they are equally poisonous.

Of the less-known forms, Aconitum 'Ivorine' is an innocent-looking white and a graceful plant, the sort that you can put in a herb garden to jolly it up. Those rigorously committed to a 'herbs only' doctrine might allow Aconitum 'Ivorine' on the grounds that a powder made of its roots might work as a poison for rats, but its leaves should not be mistaken for parsley. The poison they contain is said to be more powerful than prussic acid, that Agatha Christie favourite; the roots are even stronger. Detective story writers may like to know this fact.

There is a climbing aconitum with navy- blue flowers, Aconitum volubile, which looks very dark and gothic. It is in flower now and in this garden, twining through a pale golden ivy, it is an elegant sight. Delicate and distinguished plants are in short supply at the blowsy end of summer, so the climbing aconitum is one to encourage.

Aconitum vulparia, as its name suggests, is the foxiest vulpine of them all, but the botanists have tinkered with its label and we must now learn to call it A. lycoctonum, which seems to be something of a cross between a wolf and a fox. Its flowers are an unusual soft cream (like elongated foxgloves) on upright stems that grow as high as four feet. It is a floppy plant and needs staking, although if you grow it in a tightly packed bed you sometimes get away with allowing it to sprawl.

Like all aconitums, it performs better if divided every three years. Handling the roots (which witches were supposed to grind into flying ointment) may be risky. So unless you want to fly away for ever, wear gloves.

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