A Writers Guide to Belladonna

belladonna

Atropa belladonna flower and berry

Belladonna, commonly known as Deadly Nightshade, is a tall, branching plant in the Solanaceae family that can grow up to 5 feet in height. Atropa belladonna has purple bell-shaped flowers that are tinged with green. It has cherry-sized green berries that ripen to a dark purple or black. Yellow belladonna (Atropa belladonna var. lutea) is a rare pale-yellow flowering variety with pale-yellow fruit.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Atropa belladonna

Common/Folk Names: Banewort, Black Cherry, Deadly Nightshade, Devil’s Cherries, Devil’s Herb, Divale, Dwale, Dwayberry, Great Morel, Love Apple, Naughty Man’s Cherries, Poison Black Cherry, Sorcerer’s Cherries, and Witch’s Berries.

Life Cycle: perennial
Habitat: woodlands in shady areas with moist soil
Blooms: midsummer through early fall

Smell: leaves have sharp, bitter unpleasant odor; berries smell similar to unripened tomatoes; flowers have no discernible scent
Taste: leaves and roots have a bitter taste, berries are somewhat sweet (Don’t taste it.)

Notes

  • Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic. Ingestion of two berries can be fatal to an adult, and ingestion of a single leaf can be fatal to an adult.
  • The plant also contains hyoscyamine and atropine.
  • Atropa belladonna is toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis.
  • Woody nightshade is not the same thing as deadly nightshade.

History

  • Symptoms of belladonna poisoning may be slow to appear but last for several days. They include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severe dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.
  • The common name belladonna originates from its historical use. Bella Donna is Italian for beautiful lady. Drops prepared from the belladonna plant were used to dilate women’s pupils. The drops blocked receptors in the eye’s muscles that constrict pupil size. The effect was considered to be attractive and seductive. Prolonged use caused blindness.
  • Belladonna is believed to have been the plant that poisoned Marcus Antonius’ troops during the Parthian Wars.
  • The Romans used belladonna as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both were rumored to have used it for murder), and it was commonly used to make poison tipped arrows.
  • In 1868, Marie Jeanneret, a Swiss nurse, was convicted of murdering seven patients by belladonna poisoning.
  • In the 1990s, a nine-year-old Danish boy ate between twenty and twenty-five berries and survived.

Lore

  • Named for Atropos, one of the Three Fates, who held the shears that cut the thread of life.
  • Witches were believed to mix belladonna, opium poppy, and other plants (typically poisonous ones such as monkshood and poison hemlock) to create an ointment that helped them fly. Some suggest that this combination brought on hallucinations and a dreamlike state that would certainly make them think they were flying.
  • The devil tends to the plant nightly, except on Walpurgis, when he is prepares for the witches’ sabbath.
  • Priests of Bellona (Ancient Roman Goddess of War) were believed to drink an infusion of belladonna before worshiping and invoking her aid.
  • Spells and rituals use belladonna in baneful magic (harmful magic), astral projection/traveling, vision quests, and crone magic (old/wise magic).

In the Language of Flowers, it means: silence

This is a reference for fiction writers and should not be taken as medical or spiritual advice.

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27 Comments

  1. I briefly used all natural teething tablets for my son. One day, I looked at the ingredients and saw that belladonna was one of them. While I realize it would have been a minute amount, since the all natural products aren’t regulated by a governing body, I stopped using them.

    1. That would freak me out!

  2. That’s no flower – that’s a dangerous weed.
    The kid ate that many berries and survived? If they smell so bad, I’m stunned he got past the first one.

    1. I know, weird. Supposedly the berries are pretty when mature–or maybe his sniffer was congested.

  3. The witches probably thought they were flying – LOL!

    That’s a tall plant. Almost as tall as I am.

    1. Yeah, I thought it would be a small shrub.

  4. I’m with Alex, it’s a dangerous weed! It is pretty though, so I can see its visual appeal. Thanks for the info!

    1. It is pretty. I didn’t know the flower was so attractive!

  5. Knowing how much I hate having my eyes dilated at the doctor’s office, I shudder at the thought of doing it regularly … walking around unable to see … just so men will find my dilated eyes beautiful. *literally shuddering here *

    Not to mention the whole poison/blindness thing …

    1. It had to feel so weird too.

  6. Hi Holly – I remember being told don’t eat the black berries … and yes I knew it grew relatively prolifically … interesting reading though – thank goodness we know more … and it’s often been used in murder mysteries … cheers Hilary

    1. Yes, it’s a favorite of mystery writers. Several of my first plants are along a similar vein!

  7. Wow! That is some plant. I think I’ll just keep my distance unless I need a good poison in a story one of these days!

    1. You never know when you might need one. 🙂

  8. Yikes! If one of the three Fates used it then you know it’s bad!

    Stephen Tremp

  9. it has such a lovely name, though

  10. Keep that stuff away from me!

    Arlee Bird

  11. That’s a terrifying plant, but great fodder for the story world.

  12. This plant has long fascinated me as it’s often referenced in Italian-type murder mysteries I like to read. There is another book simply called Belladonna, describing the anti-hero who is as deadly as the plant. So many authors have researched this plant and its properties for sure. 🙂

  13. Fascinating that it has no smell. Great info, Holly!

  14. They really used to have some dangerous practices for making themselves appear beautiful – and they knew how harmful it was. Fascinating stuff.

  15. Interesting info. I remember seeing “belladonna” and “nightshade” in certain texts in my British literature classes.

  16. Fascinating. And tons of common names for it. I love tidbits of info like that!

  17. This is a fascinating plant. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Didn’t the witches in Practical Magic use that?

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