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By Jackie Rhoades
The monkshood plant is an herbaceous wildflower that can be found growing in mountain meadows. This article provides information about the plant, including tips of growing and caring for them.
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Native to mountainous areas in Europe and Asia, monkshood is a tall herbaceous perennial flower that blooms late in the summer and handles partial shade very well. It gets its common name from its resemblance to the cowl on monk’s habits. There are about 250 species of aconite, 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 blue or white flowers on sturdy, unbranched stems. Planted in early spring, the flowers on monkshood begin to emerge in mid-summer 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.
Though monkshood has been safely cultivated in gardens for hundreds of years, it is known to be extremely poisonous. You’ll find many references in literature to monkshood being used to kill enemies (fed as poison or used in arrows), and yet another common name for monkshood, wolf's-bane, refers to its use for getting rid of wolves.
|Botanical Name||Aconitum napellus|
|Common Name||Monkshood, wolf's-bane, devil's helmet|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature Size||2–4 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial shade|
|Soil Type||Moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic|
|Flower Color||Blue, purple|
|Hardiness Zones||3–7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Asia|
|Toxicity||Toxic to dogs, cats, and humans|
In a typical growing season, a bleeding heart plant produces about 20 small flowers on each of its stems in spring. Its foliage usually enters dormancy in the midsummer heat. This sensitivity to heat makes establishing new plants more challenging in warmer zones than in colder areas. In addition, the flowers are delicate and should be protected from strong winds.
Bleeding hearts usually bloom about the same time as pulmonaria, brunnera, and hellebores, all of which contribute to a wonderful woodland cottage effect. Bleeding hearts will stay in bloom for several weeks, but the foliage tends to go downhill after flowering. Plan to have late-emerging plants nearby to fill in the hole if your bleeding hearts go dormant and disappear. Coral bells, ferns, foam flower, hosta, and monkshood are good companions.
Bleeding heart is fairly trouble-free, although common garden problems such as aphids and powdery mildew are occasional problems. The leaves are susceptible to leaf spots, and the easiest solution is to shear back the affected foliage. Although bleeding hearts like moist soil, they cannot tolerate heavy, wet soil and may get root rot if left with wet feet too long.
Bleeding heart does best in part shade. Since it is such an early bloomer, planting near a deciduous tree is a good spot. The plant will be up and growing before the tree leaves out, and when the bleeding heart needs protection from the summer sun, the tree will provide it.
Bleeding heart prefers humus-rich, moist soil, with lots of organic matter, but it is not too particular about soil pH. It prefers a slightly acidic soil, but will do fine in neutral soils. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, over the existing soil. Work it in to improve aeration and create a loose soil that allows the roots to grow.
Keep plants well watered throughout the summer, especially in warmer weather. Even then, they may disappear until the fall or next spring. If you recently planted your bleeding hearts, it would be wise to mark the spot, so you do not accidentally dig in the area while your plants are dormant. Western bleeding heart is a little more drought-tolerant than the other species, but it is still best to treat them all as woodland plants and provide a moist—but not wet—environment.
A bleeding heart plant begins to yellow once the summer heat ramps up. This is perfectly normal, as it is a sign that it is storing away energy for the winter. Its ideal temperature is 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a good tolerance for high humidity.
Bleeding heart plants are not heavy feeders, so when to fertilize depends on the quality of your soil. If you have rich, organic soil that is amended every year, you will not have to feed at all. Bleeding hearts are woodland plants and do especially well with a top dressing of leaf mold.