How to Grow and Care for Monkshood

Monk's hood flowers

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Native to mountainous areas in Europe and Asia, monkshood is a tall herbaceous perennial flower that blooms late in the summer and fall and handles partial shade very well. It gets its common name from its resemblance to the cowl on a monk’s habit. There are about 250 species of Aconitum, but Aconitum napellus is the most commonly grown ornamental variety. A moderately slow-growing flower, monkshood features smooth palmate leaves with deep lobes and racemes of azure blue or white flowers on sturdy, unbranched stems. The flowers on monkshood begin to emerge in midsummer and feature five sepals—the top sepal curves downward, giving the flower its hood-like appearance, while the actual petals are hidden inside the hood. When planted from seeds, it can take two years or more for plants to achieve flowering maturity.

Warning

Monkshood is one of the most dangerously toxic plants there is; gardeners are advised to wear gloves when handling it in any way, and to avoid all skin contact, especially with open cuts. Surprisingly, however, it is safe to compost poisonous plants such as monkshood, as the toxins do not survive the heat and bacterial action of the composting process. There is generally no problem if monkshood plant parts are one component in a diverse and properly maintained compost pile. You should be quite careful, though, when handling monkshood. The alkaloids contained in all parts of this plant are extremely toxic and are easily absorbed through the skin.

Common Name Monkshood, aconite monkshood, wolfsbane
Botanical Name  Aconitum napellus
Family Ranunculaceae
Plant Type  Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size  2–5 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide 
Sun Exposure  Full, partial
Soil Type  Moist but well-drained
Soil pH  Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time  Summer, fall
Flower Color  Blue, purple
Hardiness Zones  3–7 (USDA) 
Native Area  Europe, Asia
Toxicity  Toxic to people, toxic to pets
Monk's hood flower
​The Spruce / Autumn Wood 
monk's hood flowers
Josie Elias / Getty Images

    Monkshood Care

    Monkshood is fairly easy to grow in moist but well-draining soil in regions with relatively cool summers. It will struggle in dense soil or in hot conditions. This is a plant that needs plenty of water to thrive, and it should be grown with an awareness of its toxicity.

    Take pains to make sure that pets and children have no access to this plant, and even cutting flowers for floral arrangements should be done carefully, so as to avoid getting sap on bare skin.

    Light

    Monkshood can handle both full sun and partial shade. Typically, the sunnier the spot, the better for the bloom—however, if you live in an especially warm area, you're better off opting for a partially-shaded spot so you don't burn the delicate petals. If you notice the heads or stems of the flower drooping, it is probably receiving too much shade.

    Soil

    Monkshood will thrive in any type of moist soil that is well-drained. The ideal soil is a rich, porous loam, but even rocky, mountainous soils can work, provided they receive enough moisture. Dense, poorly drained soils can cause root rot in these plants. Monkshood prefers a soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral (4.5–7.5), but it can handle extremely acidic soils, as well as slightly alkaline conditions.

    Water

    A thirsty drinker, monkshood likes to be kept consistently moist but not waterlogged. Frequent watering is important during its growth period (spring) and, once established, monkshood is able to withstand short periods of drought. However, if it's a robust and lush flowering plant you desire, provide consistently moist soil and make sure it gets a minimum of 1 inch of water each week during the growing season.

    Temperature and Humidity

    Monkshood is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7, and it prefers cool summers with relatively low humidity. Keep in mind, that the warmer the weather, the more shade the plant will need.

    Fertilizer

    Feeding always depends on the quality of your soil. Start with rich soil, high in organic matter, then side-dress with compost and some organic fertilizer each spring. A fertilizer formulated for roses, applied each spring, often works well for monkshood plants that aren't blooming adequately. Avoid nitrogen-heavy fertilizers. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.

    Types of Monkshood

    In addition to the species form, which is a favorite for its traditional deep blue flowers, there are several good named cultivars to choose from:

    • 'Albus' is the familiar monkshood, but with white flowers.
    • 'Blue sceptre' is a unique bi-colored version of monkshood, featuring white and blue flowers.
    • ‘Newry Blue’ has very deep blue flowers.
    • ‘Rubellum’ has pink flowers on plants with very finely cut leaves.

    There are also related Aconitum species that are sometimes grown as garden plants, though they can be difficult to find:

    • Aconitum septentrionale 'Ivorine' is an early blooming type featuring elongated, white flowers.
    • Aconitum hendyi 'Spark's Variety' is a monkshood with branched flower stalks, giving it a fuller appearance.
    • Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii' has azure-blue flowers that appear in mid to late fall on 2- to 5-foot plants.

    Pruning

    Cutting these plants back after they bloom sometimes produces a second flush of flowers in the fall. Beyond this, no pruning is necessary until you cut the stalks back to ground level after frost kills the plants in the winter.

    Propagating Monkshood

    Monkshood is usually propagated by root divisions, which should be performed in fall every four of five years as the clumps become dense and congested. Vegetative propagation is also the only way to ensure accurate propagation of named cultivars, as seeds collected from named cultivars often do not "come true" when planted.

    Make sure to wear gloves when handling the tubers, as the roots contain the greatest concentration of toxins. Here's how to do it:

    1. After cutting back the stalks to ground level, use a shovel to dig up the entire root clump.
    2. Carefully divide the clump by teasing it apart with your fingers. Separate the clump into divisions, each having one or more thick tuberous sections.
    3. Prepare the new planting site by blending in plenty of organic material, such as peat moss or compost. It is critical that the soil be well-draining for monkshood to thrive.
    4. Replant the pieces so the tops of the tubers are covered by no more than 1 inch of soil. Water thoroughly.
    5. Apply a thick layer of organic mulch over the plants for their first winter.

    How to Grow Monkshood From Seed

    Like many perennials, you can start monkshood from seed—however, it can be finicky about germination and may take a year or more to sprout. Because of this, it's a good idea to start extra seeds, with the expectation that some of them won't end up germinating.

    Sow the seed in late fall for germination in the spring—they need to go through a chilling period in winter to break dormancy. The plants don’t really like to be transplanted, so direct sow in the garden if possible. They can be ephemeral during their first year, so don’t panic if the young plants disappear. And it is not uncommon for seedlings to take two years or so before they mature into flowering plants.

    Overwintering

    Within its established hardiness range, monkshood doesn't require any special winter protection, but like all perennials, a thick layer of mulch can help moderate freeze-thaw cycles and protect the roots if you live in a region that on the colder end of the hardiness range. Gardeners in zones 3 and 4 may find applying straw or dried leaves helpful for protecting monkshood, though this mulch should be removed promptly in the spring.

    Common Pests & Plant Diseases

    There are no pests that seriously plague monkshood, but you may encounter some plant diseases.

    Crown rot, powdery mildew, and verticillium wilt can affect monkshood. Crown rot may occur in dense soils that are poorly draining, or if garden debris traps moisture and fungi around the plant crown. Powdery mildew is usually not serious and can be avoided by ground-level watering rather than overhead spraying. Verticillium wilt is a soil-borne fungal disease that causes stems to turn yellow and wither. Affected plants will need to be removed and destroyed. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, which can make verticillium wilt more likely.

    How to Get Monkshood to Bloom

    Monkshood is usually a reliable bloomer, producing long-lasting flowers beginning in mid to late summer. Failure to bloom sometimes occurs if the plants aren't getting the ample moisture they crave. Over-feeding with a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer may also stimulate excessive foliage development at the expense of flowers.

    Plants begun from seeds may not bloom until their second, or even third year. And it's common for plants recently divided to experience reduced blooming in the following season.

    Common Problems With Monkshood

    Monkshood growing in desirable conditions rarely shows cultural problems, but plants sometimes get leggy and tall, requiring staking to keep them from toppling over.

    After division, monkshood plants may languish for a while before regaining their former vigor. These plants have sensitive, brittle roots, and they often resent transplanting. But this peevishness is usually temporary, and within a year, the divided plants will come back strong.

    FAQ
    • How long does monkshood live?

      Lifespans of 10 to 20 years and longer are common for monkshood. If you lift and divide the tubers every four or five years, a patch of monkshood can be continued almost indefinitely.

    • How should this plant be used in the landsape?

      Monkshood is a natural choice for growing along streams and ponds, and along the edges of bog or water gardens, but it also is perfectly suitable for border gardens provided you are willing to water it frequently. Do not grow it where children are present, and it's best not to grow monkshood near vegetable gardens where other underground tubers are growing.



    • Are there any non-poisonous types of monkshood?

      No. Virtually all species of Aconitum are seriously toxic, This is not a plant to include in your garden if children are likely to play around them, or if you have pets that like to dig or gnaw on plants. And you should avoid any kind of skin contact—even when planting seeds.

      One common name for this plant—"wolf's bane"—derives from the plant's use to kill wolves by baiting meat with plant extract.

    Article Sources
    The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
    1. Aconitum napellus. Missouri Botanical Garden

    2. Aconitum. North Carolina State Extension.

    3. Aconitum. North Carolina State Extension.

    4. Aconitum. North Carolina State Extension.

    5. Monkshood. Cornell University.

    6. Bird, Richard. The Propagation of Hardy Perennials. Batsford Publishing, 1994.

    7. Aconitum. North Carolina State Extension.

    8. Monkshood. University of Saskatchewan College of Agriculture.

    9. Aconitum napelles. Missouri Botanical Garden.