October 2006 © Janet Davis
There is a mellow, quiet beauty about the garden in October that requires nothing from the gardener than to simply relax and enjoy it. All the staking, weeding and deadheading is over; now, as the days grow cool and the leaves begin to color is the time to reflect on the summer past and rejoice in the cycles of the seasons.
But there is one exquisite flowering perennial that waits patiently until the rest of the garden is quiescent to begin its dramatic October show. Autumn monkshood, also know as azure monkshood, is the beautiful plant I see now from my kitchen window, its tall, blue spikes shining like lapis lazuli amidst the burnished golds and russets of the fall border. And as its companion plants -- the physostegias, asters and Japanese anemones -- slowly fade away and the ornamental grasses turn tawny and the fruit ripens on the bittersweet and hollies, those mysterious, hooded. blue blossoms continue to open throughout the month into November. Some years, the monkshood is still in bloom on Remembrance Day.
Strictly speaking, autumn monkshood refers to Aconitum carmichaelii, a Himalayan plant that reaches more than 6 feet (2 metres) in height. But the plants I grow are a slightly shorter hybrid of that species called ‘Arendsii’, a 1945 cultivar named for its creator, German plant breeder Georg Arends (who also hybridized astilbes). It is a superb perennial that grows around 4-5 feet (120-150 cm) tall with thick stems that require absolutely no staking.
If, like me, you tend a country garden throughout summer and want to focus on spring and fall perennials in your city garden, this is a spectacular addition to the autumn plant roster.
One of the first perennials to thrust through the soil in early spring, its leaves resemble those of delphiniums, a related species in the family Ranunculaceae. It grows rapidly upwards from May to September, finally sending out numerous, short, lateral flowering branches near the top. All that vigorous leaf and stem growth throughout summer dictates the need for nitrogen-rich soil, so work lots of compost or packaged manure into the soil around the roots, and fertilize it in spring as well, using whatever type of organic or granular fertilizer you prefer.
There are monkshoods that flower in summer too, including European monkshood (Aconitum napellus) and bicolour monkshood (Aconitum x bicolor), though many of the summer bloomers tend to be floppier than the autumn one. All monkshoods prefer moist, humus-rich soil in full or filtered sunlight, but are otherwise among the most low-maintenance perennials.
It’s the shape of the flowers that gives monkshood its common name, for they were thought to resemble the hooded cowls worn by medieval monks. It is also one of the most toxic plants known, producing a deadly poison called aconitine. In fact, the old English name “wolfbane” recalls the use of ground-up monkshood root as an animal poison, presumably to protect livestock from predation. And it was European monkshood that figured in Greek mythology, as in this dark reference by Ovid: “Medea, to dispatch a dang-rous heir, (She knew him) did a pois’nous draught prepare, Drawn from a drug, long while reserved in store, For desp’rate uses, from the Scythian shore...”
So a caveat, if you have small children or pets who like to nibble on leaves, roots or shoots in your garden, you may not wish to grow any type of monkshood.
Autumn monkshood is not always the last perennial to bloom in my garden. Many years, that honor belongs to the hardy little Japanese chrysanthemum ‘Mei-Kyo’. With its sprays of small, double, pink-and-white button mums and its subtle, incense-like perfume, it is the perfect plant to cut and slip into a vase along with a few sprigs of monkshood, reminding me of the season that was and the spring that will be.