Belladonna (Deadly nightshade)

Image of Belladonna retrieved from Above Top Secret in January 2013.

Belladonna is a shrub-like, perennial, European herb with dull reddish to bluish-or-greenish-purple, bell shaped, axillary flowers, shiny black fruits (berries), and leaves that are more evenly margined than some of its solanaceous relatives. Belladonna and related genera and species in the nightshade family such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), Mandrake (Madragora officinarum), and jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) have had a long and sometimes sordid history of human use, that is, in intentional poisoning or in black magic. In particular, belladonna, henbane, and mandtrake were used in the practice of witchcraft and sorcery during the European Middle Ages. They were employed in witches’ brews to induce hallucinogenic states for communing with the supernatural, particularly during witches; celebrations (known as sabbats). Through the use of these plants, witches could induce the desired visual and sometimes frenzied, states in their subjects.

Belladonna and its botanical cousins contain atropine-like alkaloids, a relatively simple category of alkaloid (tropane type) consisting fundamentally of a single ring with nitrogen bonded across the molecule. In Belladonna, three very similar, principal alkaloids may occur: hyoscymine, scopolamine, and atropine itself. Hyoscyamine is usually most abundant in the plant, with scopolamine perhaps most effectively psychoactive. However, all three alkaloids are potentially present and hallucinogenic.

But all for Belladonna is not a dark history, focusing on witchcraft and psychoactivity. To the contrary, belladonna had probably been put to as many different medicinal (and related) uses as has any other plant. The atropine can reduce mucous secretions, and it is utilized in some nasal sprays or decongestants (in which it acts as an antihistamine). Because of the bronchodilating properties of atropine (that is, its activity in relaxing constricted bronchial tubes) belladonna has been used to treat asthma. For years, belladonna extract was employed as “the drop” used by ophthalmologists as a mydriatic agent, to dilate the pupil of the eye during examination. In a similar vein, belladonna was used by Italian women to brighten their eyes, the red sap of the plant was also being employed as a cosmetic; the meaning of the common name belladonna, from the Italian language is “beautiful lady”. Belladonna has been used to control unwanted, nocturnal urination and also night sweating, as a treatment of symptoms in Parkinson’s disease, as an aid in limiting epileptic seizures, for control of whooping couch spasms, to treat bradycardia (atropine is used to stimulate the heart following cardiac arrest), and to counter the effects of opiate overdose. Indeed the medical benefits of belladonna over time would seem to outweigh by far the less attractive features in the history of its use.

Excerpt from pg 284-285 of Poisonous and Medicinal Plants by Will H. Blackwell

Belladonna (Deadly nightshade)