A Writers Guide to Henbane

henbane

henbane

Henbane is a member of Solanaceae family that grows 1-2 feet in height. It has large, pointed leaves with irregular lobes that alternate on the stem. Both the stem and leaves are sticky and have glandular hairs. The bell-shaped flowers have five white to dark yellow petals with purple veins and dark centers. The seedpods have up to 500 tiny dark brown seeds, similar to poppy seeds.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Hyoscyamus niger

Common/Folk Names: Black Henbane, Cassilago, Common Henbane, Devil’s Eye, Henbane, Hebenon, Henbell, Hogsbean, Jupiter’s Bean, Poison Tobacco, and Stinking Nightshade.

Life Cycle: annual and biennial
Habitat: waste ground, roadside, soil heaps, fields, church lands, ruins, mills, harbors
Blooms: summer

Smell: nauseous odor, similar to tobacco
Taste: leaves and seeds are unpleasant, bitter, and acrid, leaves are also gluey

Notes

  • Henbane is poisonous to humans and most animals. However, hogs are said to feed upon the leaves and suffer no ill effects. Hence, one of the common names is hogsbean.

History

  • Atropine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other tropane alkaloids are in the foliage and seeds.
  • Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include strong hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms include tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia, and ataxia (loss of control over bodily movement).
  • Eating even a low dosage of the leaves and roots produces maniacal delirium.
  • Used in combination with other plants, such as mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura, it was used as an anesthetic potion for its psychoactive properties. Don’t try it.
  • Pliny documented the use of henbane.
  • Gruit, an old-fashioned herb mixture used for bittering and flavoring beer, used henbane as flavoring.
  • Henbane was also used to relieve pain from gout, the sciatica, and other joint pains.
  • When combined with vinegar and applied to the forehead and temples, it was believed to relieve headaches and fevers.
  • Necklaces were made from the root, then hung around children’s necks as charms to prevent fits and to ease teething.
  • The name henbane is derived from the old belief that the seeds were fatal to poultry. Others believe the name is derived from hen-bell due to the shape of the flowers.

Lore

  • Henbane is thought to be the “hebenon” poured into of Hamlet’s father ear.
  • Henbane is considered a witch plant.
  • The dead in Hades are crowned with henbane as they wander hopelessly beside the River Styx.
  • Spells and rituals use henbane in baneful magic (harmful magic), to attract love, divination, and to bring rain.

In the Language of Flowers, it means: imperfection, fault

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

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36 Comments

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  1. Hi Holly – it always interests me what animals and birds can eat, but which are poisonous to us and sometimes to other ‘critters’ … Henbane is a known danger … cheers Hilary

    1. It’s fascinating to me too.

  2. I’ve never heard of henbane nor have I seen it. I’ll know to avoid it if I do.

    1. The hairy leaves would keep me away. 🙂

  3. I wonder if the toxin stays in the hog and affects those who might eat it?

    1. I couldn’t find anything saying it stays in the hog (like poison hemlock and birds), so maybe it gets processed out?

  4. Yikes! Hanging a necklace of henbane root around the neck of a teething child seems to be asking for disaster!

  5. This sounds like a useful plant for novelists–good for witches or as a murder weapon, plus hallucinations. Cool.

    1. I love “plus hallucinations”–like it is a bonus. 🙂

  6. My grandmother used to have henbane in her garden. I thought the name sounded familiar, but I hadn’t connected it with the poison used on Hamlet’s father. Love knowing that.

    1. It would be interesting to see it in a garden; it looks like a side of the road kind of plant.

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this one. And now I know to avoid it! Thanks for the info. Have a great week! 🙂

    1. Thanks and back at ya. 😉

  8. I’ve heard of this in association with witches. I don’t think I’ve ever tried it. I’m here so I guess not.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  9. Something about the name brings to mind witches and spells. Can’t say that I’ve ever seen it growing, but I know now to stay clear of it if I do.

    1. Everything about this plant calls to witches.

  10. Helps joint pain? Causes maniacal hallucinations? Sign me up! Erm… kidding. Not a fan of hallucinations. It’s pretty, in a spooky way. Seems very fitting it is a witch plant.

    1. It really does look like a witchy plant!

  11. Interesting. Like others, I’ve always associated henbane with witches. I wonder if it got it’s colloquial name because it caused distress in hens? It doesn’t look like anything a hen would be interested in. Of course women used to be referred to as hens, so there’s that.

    1. The seeds were thought to be fatal to poultry. I should stick that info in the post!

  12. I’ve never heard of this either. My memory is combining “witches’ bane” (which I don’t think is a real thing) with “hemlock”. I can just imagine how useful it might have been for old-timers in the know.

    1. There lots of books called Witch Bane, but I think it might refer to any of the poisonous plants used by witches.

  13. I have never heard of henbane before. I’m definitely going to avoid it if I ever come across it.

  14. So poisonous, and yet thought to treat headaches when mixed with vinegar? Interesting.

    Do you have a list of all the flowers that you’re going through to make these posts? Or are these plants you’ve encountered yourself?

    1. I’ve not encountered many of these. I was doing research on one and then got really interested in the whole plant lore and medicinal thing. Most of the plants this year are poisonous. More food for writers. 🙂

  15. Ooh, a plant I’ve never heard of, and which would be very useful in some stories. Thank you! 🙂

  16. Yikes. Now there’s a fun plant for story fodder. Super epic. I’ll have to keep that one in mind going forward.

  17. I don’t think I’ve heard of it before!

  18. Yikes on those effects on us. Unusual flowers and interesting facts.

  19. Wow, I’ve not seen these before. Very pretty.

  20. What a fascinating plant! You could live your whole life and never hear of half of these plants! I just heard yesterday that Australia has the largest amount by far of native plants in the world, even more than Britain. Interesting. I’d never heard of Henbane. Thanks for researching it!

  21. At least the dead in Hades wouldn’t have headaches! Quite interesting to look at.

  22. Flowers are so pretty yet we wouldn’t know it’s toxic.

  23. So beautiful, yet deadly.

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