Such a beautiful plant with such an odd name. Deadly Nightshade is famous for its history during Medieval times as an adjuvant during childbirth and for its proposed use by witches inducing a trance-like state causing some to believe they were flying. Its other name Bella Donna means Beautiful Woman in Italian and was given because if dropped into the eyes the atropine alkaloids cause the pupils to dilate creating a more youthful or "seductive" appearance. Although it sounds like a divine time, don't just go into the woods to pick this herb for some afternoon tea or eye drops as it can be highly toxic.
The leaves and berries contain alkaloids which are nitrogen containing compounds common to many other plant based poisons. These toxins include scopolamine and hyoscyamine which can cause hallucinations and all sorts of delerium. These neurological effects contribute to the effects of the pharmaceutical drug made from Deadly Nightshade known as Atropine which is a competitive muscarinic acethylcholine receptor antagoinist.
fig. 1 Atropine alkaloid from Deadly Nightshade
Even prior to the Middle Ages, Belladonna was used as an anesthetic for surgery and the ancient Romans used it as a poison. Midwives would use it to help prevent miscarriages and others would use it during childbirth to ease labor. A salve applied topically can induce a trance-like or altered state inducing the infamous "witches flight" that many attribute to this herb. In addition to the hallucinogenic high, ingesting the leaves or berries can cause a host of undesirable effects like mouth dryness, rapid heartbeat, slurred speech and convulsions. The leaves and berries are also very toxic to children and even ingesting small amounts can be fatal.
Medicinal use of the plant mainly comes from the highly diluted, specially formulated Homeopathic version. Homeopathic formulas of Belladonna are used for stomach aches, nausea, headache, nervous system disorders, menopause symptoms and more.
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. If desiring to use this botanical, seek out a well prepared homeopathic version of this plant and use under the guidance of a professional.