Belladonna (atropa belladonna)

As one of its common names implies, this perennial is highly poisonous and potentially deadly! The plant’s scientific name comes from the Greek Atropos, one of the Fates who held the shears to cut the thread of human life, suggesting that its toxic properties were well known long ago. The common name belladonna (Italian for “beautiful lady”) is derived from its use by women of the Middle Ages.

Atropa belladonna

They dropped the sap of this plant into their eyes to dilate their pupils, believing it made their eyes appear more brilliant. (Period paintings of Italian women show them with large pupils, which were considered beautiful.) The practice had a very dangerous downside, however; it impaired their vision for days. Since time immemorial, people have compromised their health in the name of beauty.

Plant profile

Common Names: Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade

Description: Branching perennial, up to 3 feet tall; alternate elliptical leaves with paler green undersides; nodding bell-shaped purple flowers; berries mature from green to deep purple to black

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Solanaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Asia, and Africa; found in woods, thickets, and wastelands

Medicinal use

Every part of this herb contains the toxic alkaloid atropine, which relaxes and relieves spasms in the heart muscle and the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. A carefully prepared pharmaceutical formulation containing atropine is still used by physicians to dilate pupils, as well. Today, several prescription medicines use the active ingredients in belladonna to treat intestinal disorders such as diarrhea, irritable colon, and peptic ulcer.

This plant is extremely toxic, however, its use can result in rapid heartbeat, delirium, confusion, blurred vision, and many other symptoms. In fact, it was used in poisonings throughout history, as well as to torture prisoners into confessions—often false. It contains scopolamine, once used as “truth serum” in interrogations.

Caution: All parts of this herb are considered toxic.

Other uses

Belladonna is thought to be one of the principle ingredients in the hallucinogenic witches’ brews of medieval Europe. It has been suggested that some women mixed an extract of this species with fat and other plants to make a hallucinogenic “flying ointment,” which they then applied to their skin with a broom or staff. After it was absorbed and had entered the bloodstream, it reportedly caused the sensation of flight—perhaps accounting for the popular image of a witch “riding” a broom. Please don’t try this at home!

How to grow it

Belladonna can sometimes be found cultivated in flower gardens, but it must be kept out of reach of those who might be harmed by its toxicity. Eating as few as two or three of the succulent berries has proven to be fatal to children. Some recommend using gloves when handling this plant, as all parts of the plant are highly toxic, and it is possible to absorb its chemicals through your skin.