What is Belladonna? A History of Deadly Nightshade
Atropa Belladonna has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and even as a poison. Deadly Nightshade or Belladonna is one herb not for the novice witch or backyard herbalist. It has a well earned, hauntingly beautiful past and produces poisonous alkaloids that if not carefully cultivated can be deadly.
The History and Folklore of the Deadly Nightshade Plant
Deadly Nightshade, has a very shadowy history, and its use by man throughout the centuries has been a harrowing tale of beauty, life, and death.
Known originally under various folk names (such as "deadly nightshade" in English), the plant was baptized Atropa belladonna by Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). He chose the name Atropa because of the poisonous properties of these plants. Linnaeus chose the species name belladonna ("beautiful woman" in Italian) in reference to the cosmetic use of the plant during the Renaissance when women used the juice of the berries in eye drops intended to dilate the pupils and make the eyes appear more seductive.
- The original range of Atropa Belladonna was from southern Europe to Asia.
- Venetian ladies of the court would dilated their pupils with a tincture of Belladonna eye-drops.
Atropa belladonna was used as an anesthetic for surgery, midwives would use it to help prevent miscarriages and others would use it during childbirth to ease labor. A salve applied topically was said to induce a trance-like or altered state inducing the infamous "witches flight" that many attribute to this herb. In ancient Greece is was used for treatment of wounds, gout, and sleeplessness, and as a love potion.
- Medieval witches made brews and salves using deadly nightshade as a constituent in their "flying" ointments.
- Belladonna was used as a pre-anesthetic agent by causing drowsiness, amnesia, and euphoria.
Belladonna is also known as "Deadly Nightshade" and once used as a means of poisoning ones enemy. The Nightshade has been a killer of kings, emperors, and warriors throughout history. The Roman military created a deadly paste from the plant that was used to make poison-tipped arrows for archers, a practice that was in use for centuries.
- The Romans used belladonna as a biological weapon to contaminate their enemies' food reserves.
- The wives of Roman emperors Augustus and Claudius poisoned them with Atropine, an alkaloid component found in Belladonna.
- During World War II, the Germans invented a deadly, odorless nerve gas and the only antidote to its paralyzing effects turned out to be Atropine.
This extremely poisonous plant has a long and colorful history of use and abuse. When Linnaeus formally applied a scientific name to this plant in 1753, he acknowledged its toxic nature as well as its social value. Today it is naturalized in many parts of the world.
Chemistry of Belladonna: Homeopathic Materia Medica
The Belladonna plant, or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Its roots, leaves, and fruits contain Hyoscyamine, Scopolamine, and mostly Atropine. These alkaloids are naturally-occurring muscarinic antagonists.
Scopolamine was introduced in 1902 and used up until the 1960s. The name "Scopolamine" is derived from one type of nightshade known as Scopolia while the name "hyoscine" is derived from another type known as Hyoscyamus niger. It was used primarily for reducing body discharges.
- Scopolamine is also used for controlling the heart rate and relaxing muscles.
- Scopolamine is helpful in reducing stomach acid, which can help with both nausea and acid reflux.
Atropine occurs naturally in a number of plants of the nightshade family including Belladonna, Jimson weed, and Mandrake. It was first isolated in 1833. Similar to Scopolamine, atropine can be used to help reduce bodily discharge, but it is not as effective as Scopolamine when used as a muscle relaxant and in heart rate control.
- In some cases, Atropine works as an antidote to insect poison and chemical warfare agents.
- Atropine is a medication used to treat certain types of nerve agents and pesticide poisoning and to decrease saliva production during surgery.
- Common side effects include a dry mouth, large pupils, urinary retention, constipation, and a fast heart rate.
- The oral overdose level for Belladonna is only 600 milligrams.
Belladonna has chemicals that can block functions of the body's nervous system. Some of the bodily functions regulated by the nervous system include salivation, sweating, pupil size, urination, digestive functions, and others.
What Is The Belladonna Plant Used For?
While it has been used as a poison in the past, scientists today extract chemicals from Belladonna for use in medicine. Currently, various medicinal preparations of Belladonna are in use. Ophthalmologists use atropine to dilate their patient’s pupils for eye-exams and surgery. Atropine is also used as an antidote to opium and chloroform poisoning. Various preparations of Belladonna are used as lotions, plasters and salves to relieve pain from sciatica, gout, and cardiac palpitations.
These chemicals, when used under a doctor’s supervision, can treat a range of afflictions, from excessive urination at night to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- It can also be used for children's acute illness like teething, headaches, restlessness, or sunstroke or infected wounds.
- Belladonna is helpful to woman who are new mothers. It helps in relation to painful breasts during breastfeeding and for ailments associated to menstruation.
- It is also helpful in reducing stomach acid, which can help with both nausea and acid reflux. Scopolamine is also used for controlling the heart rate and relaxing muscles.
There are some side effects to consider before using Belladonna. Ingesting the leaves or berries can cause a host of undesirable effects like mouth dryness, rapid heartbeat, slurred speech and convulsions. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the sweet, purplish-black berries that are attractive to children pose the greatest danger. Symptoms of poisoning include rapid heart beat, dilated pupils, delirium, vomiting, hallucinations, and death due to respiratory failure. Handling the plant can expose a person to absorbing toxins through the skin or cause severe dermatitis. Belladonna is also highly toxic to domestic animals causing paralysis and death.
- There are a number of risks associated with taking Belladonna including dry mouth, red/dry skin, inability to sweat or urinate, muscle spasms, blurred vision, enlarged pupils, hallucinations, convulsions, seizures, and coma.
- Even though it is beneficial to woman in motherhood the possible risks of taking Belladonna during breast feeding may appear in the unborn child, and it might dry up milk production.
The appropriate dose of Belladonna depends on several factors such as the user's age, health, and several other conditions.
Belladonna can be a safe herbal supplement or part of medication but only when used properly under a doctor’s care and supervision. There are a number of side effects that should be considered before using belladonna as a supplement.
Additional research needs to be conducted to test the effectiveness of Belladonna alongside the risks. Individuals should carefully consider their options before trying Belladonna as a replacement or supplemental treatment.
Medical News Today by Jenne Fletcher (2017)
The Powerful Solanaceae: Belladonna by U.S. Forest Service
Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use by Schultes, Richard Evans, Hoffman, Albert 1906-2008
Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Oxford University Press by Harner, Michael J (1973).