Imagine what it would be like to have no preexisting knowledge of plants. A simple walk through the forest would be an opportunity to discover new foods, but also to discover those plants that have the potential to harm. Figuring out whether a plant heals or harms can be tricky, especially when the same plants are often capable of both. The family of alkaloids known as the tropane alkaloids, or nightshade family, is an example of a plant group that is extremely poisonous, but has been used throughout the ages for medicinal and magical purposes.
The tropanes are unique because of their high toxicity levels and ability to be absorbed through skin contact. One perennial plant that has been revered for its alkaloid content is belladonna (Atropa belladonna) also known as deadly nightshade. Belladonna hails from Europe and Asia and has been used for its psychoactive and poisonous properties . It is now grown in North American gardens in moist areas with high limestone content and plenty of shade. The seeds are spread by wild animals that eat the deadly nightshade's sweet berries and then distribute their droppings in other areas.
The name belladonna, or beautiful woman in Italian, is attributed to the plant because of its historic topical use on the eyes to increase pupil size which was thought to look attractive. The toxicity of belladonna makes it very dangerous for young children who try to eat its sweet tasting berries. Five berries or less for children or twenty berries or less for adults can be deadly. Though the berries are the part of the plant most likely to be consumed, the leaves and roots of belladonna are even more toxic. The plant's poisonous, yet medicinal alkaloids include hyoscyamine, atropine, and hyoscine. The most common effects of belladonna consumption include pupils that are dialated and sensitive to light, blurred vision, poor balance, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, and convulsions. The plant was used as a poison in historical battles as well. In a battle between England and Scotland, Duncan I of Scotland poisoned the invading English troops with belladonna, thereby defeating them. The ancient Roman emperor Augustus was also poisoned with belladonna by his wife, Livia.
Despite the plant's toxicity, it has been used in medicine and witchcraft which probably reached its height during the renaissance when schools taught how to prepare deadly nightshade. For medicinal purposes, the plant was once used for headaches, motion sickness, menstrual cramps, inflammation, and peptic ulcer disease. Today though, belladonna's use in the medical field is more limited; synthesized versions of the plant's alkaloids are used for pupil dilation by ophthalmologists and for antispasmodics, sedatives, stimulants, and as poison antidotes.
Witches and sorcerers also utilized the leaves of deadly nightshade for their varied effects. In the Middle Ages they were used within magic potions for it hallucinogenic properties. One supposed use was in flying ointment which was applied to the skin and helped witches fly to their gatherings; though this feeling of flying was just a part of the hallucinogenic state.
Belladonna has claimed a wide variety of uses throughout history. Though its accepted applications have changed over time, the alkaloids possessed by the plant are being replicated for medicinal purposes even today. From royals to witches, and from convenient cure-all to deadly poison, the name belladonna stands out as one of the most famous and infamous psychoactive plants on earth.