By Guest Blogger, Becca Davis
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) has an interesting resume of skills, ranging from assassination to healing. Historically speaking, this plant is most notorious for being used as a poison. The Ancient Romans were known to have used deadly nightshade to make poison tipped arrows. More recently, it has been willingly ingested by people to help alleviate motion sickness or control muscle spasms.
This plant is native to South and Central Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, but can commonly be found in England, France, and North America. Deadly nightshade is a perennial herbaceous plant that branches and can grow to resemble a shrub around 4 ft. tall. The species is usually spotted in dumps, quarries, along the roadside, under shade trees, and wooded hills. Deadly nightshade is a member of the Solanaceae family. It is fascinating that such a toxic plant is closely related to common vegetables found in the same family, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.
Every part of the deadly nightshade is toxic. The roots are thick, fleshy, white, and the most poisonous portion of the plant. Leaves can be found in opposite pairs up the stem, except for the low leaves, which are solitary. A unique characteristic about the paired leaves is that one is always significantly larger than the other. All of the leaves are a dull, dark green and slightly less toxic than the root. The flowers are a shade of dark purple and have a bell-like shape. They are approximately an inch long and the corolla is five lobed. Berries are the fruit of the deadly nightshade and contain seeds and have a sweet taste when eaten. The berries start out green and as they mature and the level of toxins increases, they become a dark, glossy black. While the least toxic part of the plant, the berries can still cause damage to anyone who chooses to try a few. Children have died from ingesting the berries and roughly 10-20 berries or one leaf can kill an adult.
Deadly nightshade is poisonous due to tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These chemicals block functions of the body’s nervous system. The effects of these toxins can be delirium, hallucinations, dry mouth, enlarged pupils, blurred vision, dry skin, fever, fast heartbeat, inability to urinate or sweat, and entering into a coma. Symptoms are normally seen quickly, while waiting for professional medical help, drinking a glass of warm vinegar or a mixture of mustard and water is said to neutralize and dilute the toxins.
Why is the ingestion of this plant even a consideration, knowing its poisonous characteristic? Deadly nightshade, when properly prepared and dosed, can be used medicinally to for a plethora of ailments. Some medication for Parkinson’s disease include deadly nightshade to prevent muscle spasms and it has been used to help correct certain heart conditions because it increases the rate at which the heart pumps. It is also possible to build a tolerance to the toxins in deadly nightshade, which is acquired by taking a few sips of the brewed leaves over time. An interesting note about the toxins of deadly nightshade is that they do not affect all creatures. While it is harmful to humans, animals such as cattle, horses, rabbits, goats, and sheep can ingest the plant in large quantities without falling ill. In witch tales, deadly nightshade is cited as being the key ingredient that allows their broomsticks to levitate (though this may be due to the delirium and hallucinations that the plant induces).
Let me stress ingesting this plant is not recommended seeing as “deadly” is a key component of the plant’s name.