Deadly Nightshade: The Wicked Belladonna

| 8/8/2011 4:27:55 PM

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S.McCabeDeadly nightshade, devil’s berries, death cherries, dwale. No matter what name it goes by, beladonna (Atropa belladonna) is one of the most poisonous herbs in the world. From suicide to murder, belladonna has been a favorite tool for centuries to bring about a quick (and unpleasant) death.

Lethally beautiful, belladonna is an annual plant that grows about 2 to 4 feet high with dark green leaves and inky purple flowers. It is found across Europe, Asia, and North America, usually thriving in damp and shady spots. The entire plant, from its roots to its stems, is incredibly toxic. Just brushing up against the plant is enough to give you pustules, and the black, intensely sweet berries themselves are enough to tempt anyone to try a very regretful bite. 

8-8-11 nightshade
These sinister-looking flowers can bring on hallucinations and death if consumed.
Photo by Barry Cornelius/Courtesy

Belladonna’s wicked magic comes from an alkaloid called atropine. The name atropine derives from Atropos, one of the Three Fates of the Underworld in ancient Greece who determined human destiny. At Atropos’ whim, she would cut the thread of life and kill a mortal in the world above. Fitting, because this chemical causes a quickening of the pulse, confusion, seizures, hallucinations and even death when consumed. In fact, the symptoms of atropine are so horrid that it is often added to addictive painkillers to keep people from getting dependent. Belladonna has been used as a recreational drug, as well. The trip is said to start out pleasurable but soon turn rough and frightening, often ending in permanent blindness, brain damage, and even death. The root is the most poisonous part of the plant, followed by the leaves and then the fruit. However, just because the fruit is the least toxic part of the plant, even two berries are enough to kill a child.

The name belladonna (Italian for beautiful lady) is believed to originate from the Renaissance period. The plant contains a muscle relaxant that, when used on the eye, dilutes the pupils. Roman women would use a tincture containing diluted belladonna as eye drops to dilate their pupils in order to make them appear more sexually aroused.

Throughout the 16th and 17th century witch trials, it was recorded that witches would use belladonna, opium poppy and other poisonous plants to make a mysterious “flying ointment.” When they were supposed to meet for a gathering of their coven, witches would supposedly smear this ointment on their bodies and brooms, allowing them to fly.