On Belladonna, the plant and its historical uses.
Belladonna has been known by many names, but this first name is probably most common. It is derived from Italian and means "beautiful woman", and is probably thus named because women used to put drops containing an extract in their eyes in order to dilate the pupils. At a very animal level we recognize that increased pupil size is a sign that a person is attracted to another, and when one knows someone else finds you attractive, it is known to increase your attraction to that person. An alternate explanation of the name is found in an old superstition that at certain times the plant takes the form of an enchantress of exceeding loveliness, whom it is dangerous to look upon.
A few other names that I've run across include deadly nightshade, devil's or naughty man's cherries, black cherry, devil's herb, great morel, dwayberry, divale, dwale, banewort and atropa. The name atropa also has a good story. It is derived from the Greek Atropos, a name for one of the Fates (goddesses) who held the shears to cut the thread of human life. In the myth there are three fates or destinies that determine the course of a person's life by weaving the threads that symbolize their birth, life and death. Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the western hemisphere, and potentially deadly, so it is only right that it be named for the Fate that cuts the threads of life.
In 1916 there are records of several accidental deaths of children in London. It is said that some animals, such as rabbits, birds, sheep and horses, can eat quite a bit of the plant with no ill effects, but other animals, such as dogs and cats, can be paralyzed or killed by it.
Belladonna was first described by Linnaeus in 1753. Other plants in the Solanacea or nightshade family also can have toxic effects, and they include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry, and chili peppers.
Belladonna grows in Central and Southern Europe, South-west Asia and Algeria, and is cultivated in England, France and North America. It grows best in shady, moist areas with calcareous or limey soil. It also grows in rocky areas and is considered a weed in some places. It was historically cultivated where the soil is appropriate in southern Europe, but after WWI cultivation began elsewhere.
It is a branching upright subshrub with fleshy rootstock, and grows around 5 feet tall, though usually not in the first year of cultivation. The leaves are ovate and of various lengths on one plant, and the flowers are bell shaped and dull greenish-purple, growing from a five lobed corolla. It blooms from June or July to early September, depending on location.
The berries are green when unripe, but turn black and shiny when they ripen. They are also very sweet, and their attractive appearance makes them especially dangerous to children. Ten to twenty berries, or one leaf, can be lethal to an adult. It takes considerably less to be lethal to a child. It is important when cultivating this plant to assure that no young ones will discover and devour the intriguing and tasty berries. The entire plant, including roots, may be collected for medicinal use at 2-3 years.
The active ingredients are tropane alkaloids. Atropine is produced form the foliage. Hyoscine and hyoscyamine are also present in most plant parts. Hyoscyamine and atropine are isomers of each other. Many of the components are anticholinergic, disrupting parasympathetic nervous pathways thus affecting the regulation of sweat, breathing, and heart rate.
In modern medicine belladonna has been largely replaced by synthetic drugs. Alkaloids derived from belladonna are still used in some cases, such as the phenobarbital formulation donnatal, which is a prescription pharmaceutical FDA approved in the US to "provide peripheral anticholinergic/antispasmodic action and mild sedation".
The actions listed for belladonna include: narcotic, diuretic, sedative, antispasmodic, mydriatic and hallucinogenic. Belladonna also provides an antidote for poisoning by organophosphate nerve agents (chemical warfare). It has long been used medicinally to increase a slow heart rate (bradycardia) by 20-40 bpm, and for enlarging the pupil of the eye.
Historically belladonna has been used to treat headache, menstrual symptoms, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, inflammation, motion sickness, intestinal colic and spasmodic asthma, whooping cough, false croup, pneumonia, typhoid fever, acute sore throat, musculoskeletal sprains/strains, corns and bunions, and as a recreational drug, not to mention the homeopathic use. Topicals have been used to treat neuralgia, gout, rheumatism and sciatica.
Signs of a toxic dose include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and convulsions, complete loss of voice, frequent bending forward of the trunk, continual movements of the hands/fingers. The antidote for belladonna or atropine poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine.
There are many stories about this strong toxin. The sleeping potion taken by Shakespeare's Juliet was a preparation from Belladonna. Witches are said to have mixed it with opium, monkshood and poison hemlock in a "flying ointment" used to help them "fly" (or hallucinate that they were flying) to gatherings with other witches. The antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna (specifically scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in Papaver somniferum (specifically morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state, have been long known and used. This antagonism between opiates and tropanes is the basis of the Twilight Sleep provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain (and consciousness) during childbirth.
There are tales of belladonna having been used in war, as well. During the Parthian wars there are stories that the troops of Marcus Antonius were poisoned using belladonna, and the soldiers of Macbeth (Scots) poisoned a whole army of invading Danes by a liquor mixed with an infusion of Dwale supplied to them during a truce. Priests are said to have consumed an infusion for worship, in order to invoke the aid of Bellona, Goddess of War.