The lone voice of horticultural reason


(ack-oh NYE-tum)
Common Name: Monkshood

Here’s a plant to dispel the feelings of despair and insecurity that sometimes befall northern gardeners—you know, on those days when you flip through the glossy pages of a national magazine and wish you lived, oh, 700 miles farther south.

Enough of those thoughts. Aconitum is exotic, bizarre, worldly, glorious, alluring, and hardy as hell. Plus mine blooms in mid-August, when most of the gardens on your block are fairly void of perennial color, having just finished phloxing themselves to death.

Monkshood performs best in part shade. The variety I chiefly grow, A. henryi ‘Sparks Variety’ exceeds four feet in height, and while this precipitates staking, its dark blue flowers are so magnificent and unusual it is well worth the bother. I have also attempted the highly touted, lone yellow variety, A. lamarckii, which grows to around thirty inches, but found it an utter disappointment in bloom. The flowers were small, few, and I don’t call the color of a Caucasian baby’s bottom yellow.

There are over a dozen varieties, all of which do best in light shade and fall primarily into the blue spectrum, with the exception of the aforementioned toddler. There are also a couple of pinks, A. napellus ‘Carneum’ and A. n ‘Rubellum,’ the latter being well worth seeking out.

For a low-maintenance, dependable performer that will not require staking, try A. X cammarum ‘Bressingham Spire,’ sporting robust stalks full of violet-blue flowers.

The common name comes from the flower shape, which resemble monks caps from medieval days, though some of the varieties have flowers more remindful (in shape) of the tall fuzzy caps worn by Buckingham Palace Guards.

Care and Use

Light shade as stated above, more sun than that only if the soil is not allowed to dry out. Likes soil kept evenly moist. I’ve never had any great pest or disease problems, but those are as inevitable as taxes if you let the ground go dry. Needs acidic soil, pH between 5.5 and 6.5, so some soil sulfur may be in order, in addition to copious amounts of peat and compost.

Use in the middle to back of the border, and give these beasts some room—two feet, at least, all the way around. I find the foliage attractive all season. I have a large clump that rises behind multi-colored coleuses, and looks magnificent before and during bloom. Hardy to Zone 3, you’ll even have decent success to Zone 2 with proper winter protection.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener