BELLADONNA - THE POISONER'S HERB: HISTORY, USES AND SOME BENEFITS OF BELLADONNA
Belladonna, “Beautiful Lady” may have got its name from the fact that women have used it for centuries to dilate the pupils and give them more lustrous eyes. It can be used on the skin without ill effects but is deadly poisonous and should not be ingested. It belongs to the Solanaceae family of plants which include potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes (the wolf peach), Nipple fruit, red and green chilli peppers and the Physalis family of plants which includes the tomatillo and Cape gooseberry and Chinese lantern.
It has been associated with magic for millennia and as it has psychotropic actions, may have been responsible for tales of witches flying, during the Spanish Inquisition and earlier in
Europe. It was believed that the Devil tended this herb carefully except on Walpurgis Night (30th April) which was supposed to be the night of the Witches Sabbath. It was called Devil’s Cherries and Devil’s Herb because of this belief. Walpurgisnachten or Walpurgis Night is still celebrated in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. It was once, in the Middle Ages, the end of the fiscal year, and celebrated by farmers and artisans. Now it is still a holiday and joined with 1st May and the modern Mayday celebrations, which of course have their origins in the Celtic festival of Beltane. On Walpurgisnachten there is a lot of noise made to frighten away witches and evil spirits, and there is trick or treating, so it is like a spring Halloween. Sprigs of ash, hawthorn, elder and juniper are made into three crosses and placed on barn and stable doors to protect livestock from witches. (These trees were sacred to the European pagans.)
There are three main constituent alkaloids that are found in Deadly Nightshade, atropine, scopolamine and hyoscamine which are used in modern medicine. Atropine is named after the Latin name Linnaeus gave to the plant, Atropha, which was the name of one of the ancient Greek Fates, who was believed to hold the shears which cut the fragile thread of a human’s life. It is used to relax the smooth muscles in the gut, urinary tract and biliary tree prior to surgery. Scopolamine is used to prevent motion sickness, while hyoscamine is used to treat stomach and bladder problems as well as some heart conditions, Parkinson’s disease symptoms and rhinitis (runny nose).
Atropine is now used in toxicology, ophthalmology, as well as a painkiller in gastroenterology. Hyoscamine is used in kidnapping and date rape, as it is a sedative and can cause amnesia in certain cases.
The old Gaelic tribes used belladonna to stimulate them into a rage and give them courage for battle. It was known as the “herb of courage.” In 68 AD Locusta was imprisoned and sentenced to death in ancient
for using her tincture of Belladonna to poison the Emperor Claudius, and it is said that it was the poison of choice of the infamous Renaissance poisoner, Lucrezia Borgia. Rome
Galen, the physician (129-201AD) thought belladonna was an effective cure for “terrible, unhealing ulcers” (on the skin).Now it is used to help in the treatment of asthma and hay fever, as is the Thornapple and other members of the Datura family which are also poisonous.
In the time of Chaucer the herb was called Dwale from the French deuil meaning grief. Gerard called it ‘the sleeping nightshade’ saying that the leaves after being soaked in vinegar were laid on the forehead to stop a headache.
Used topically it can soothe irritated skin, and relieve the pain of neuralgia, gout, and rheumatism. It was once thought to cure cancer if used externally. Hahnemann, often called the Father of Homoeopathy believed and seemed to have proved that it could protect against scarlet fever.
It has recently undergone tests to ascertain its effectiveness against viral infections and one study in Kolkata’s
and the Central Council for Research into Homoeopathy found that it protected chick embryos from infection by Japanese Encephalitis. School of Tropical Medicine
There are many stories about the poisonous nature of Belladonna and as a child I remember being fascinated by the flowers, and my father and grandfather warning me not to touch the plant at all. This was sound advice as the whole plant can cause skin irritation. The best thing to do is admire its beauty at a safe distance.