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Atropa belladonna or Atropa bella-donna, commonly known as
Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family
Solanaceae, native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The foliage and
berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include
scopolamine and hyoscyamine which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations,
and are also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics. The drug atropine is
derived from the plant.
It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the
Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery; the ancient Romans used
it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both were
rumored to have used it to murder contemporaries); and predating this, it was
used to make poison-tipped arrows. The genus name "atropa" comes from Atropos,
one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, and the name "bella donna" is derived
from Italian and means "beautiful woman" because the herb was used in eye-drops
by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive.
The plant is a branching herbaceous perennial, often growing
as a as a shrub, from a fleshy rootstock. Plants grow to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft)
tall with 18 centimeters (7.1 in) long ovate leaves. The bell-shaped flowers are
purple with green tinges and faintly scented. The fruits are berries, which are
green ripening to a shiny black, and approximately 1 centimeter (0.39 in) in
diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals that disperse
the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids.
There is a pale yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with
pale yellow fruit.
It is naturalized in parts of North America, where it is often found in
shady, moist locations with limestone-rich soils. It is considered a weed
species in parts of the world, where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils.
Germination of the small seeds is often difficult, due to hard seed coats that
cause seed dormancy. Germination takes several weeks under alternating
temperature conditions, but can be sped up with the use of gibberellic acid. The
seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance
during transplanting. This plant is a sign of water near by.[
The name Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in
1753. It is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which it shares with
potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry, and chili
peppers. The common names for this species include belladonna, deadly
nightshade, divale, dwale, banewort, devil's berries, naughty man's cherries,
death cherries, beautiful death, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry.
The name Atropa is thought to be derived from that of the Greek goddess Atropos,
one of the three Greek fates or destinies who would determine the course of a
man's life by the weaving of threads that symbolized his birth, the events in
his life and finally his death; with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the
last of these. The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian language, meaning
"beautiful lady"; originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face,
or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in women.
Flowers of belladonna
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere. All
parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. The berries pose the greatest
danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste.
The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably lethal. The
root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from
one specimen to another. Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to
The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and
hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties. The symptoms of belladonna
poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision,
tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry
mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion,
hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.
Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and
paralysis. However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering
harmful effects. In humans, its anticholinergic properties will cause the
disruption of cognitive capacities, such as memory and learning.
The common name belladonna originates from its historic use by women - Bella
Donna is Italian for beautiful lady. Drops prepared from the belladonna plant
were used to dilate women's pupils, an effect considered attractive. Belladonna
drops act as an antimuscarinic, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye
that constrict pupil size. Belladonna is currently rarely used cosmetically, as
it carries the adverse effects of causing minor visual distortions, inability to
focus on near objects, and increased heart rate. Prolonged usage was reputed to
Belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries as a pain reliever,
muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory, and to treat menstrual problems, peptic
ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, and motion sickness. At least one
19th-century eclectic medicine journal explained how to prepare a belladonna
tincture for direct administration to patients.
Belladonna tinctures, decoctions, and powders, as well as alkaloid salt
mixtures, are still produced for pharmaceutical use, and these are often
standardized at 1037 partshyoscyamine to 194 parts atropine and 65 parts
scopolamine. The alkaloids are compounded with phenobarbital and/or kaolin and
pectin for use in various functional gastrointestinal disorders. The tincture,
used for identical purposes, remains in most pharmacopoeias, with a similar
tincture of Datura stramonium having been in the US Pharmacopoeia at least until
the late 1930s. The combination of belladonna and opium, in powder, tincture, or
alkaloid form, is particularly useful by mouth or as a suppository for diarrhea
and some forms of visceral pain; it can be made by a compounding pharmacist, and
may be available as a manufactured fixed combination product in some countries
(e.g., B&O Supprettes). A banana-flavoured liquid (most common trade name:
Donnagel PG) was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.
Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints, motion sickness,
and to potentiate the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of opioid analgesics. It
was formerly used in a painkiller called "twilight sleep" in childbirth.
Atropine sulphate is used as a mydriatic and cycloplegic for eye examinations.
It is also used as an antidote to organophosphate and carbamate poisoning, and
is loaded in an autoinjector for use in case of a nerve gas attack.
Atropinisation (administration of a sufficient dose to block nerve gas effects)
results in 100 per cent blockade of the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and
atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of anticholinergic
Hyoscyamine is used as the sulphate or hydrobromide for GI problems and
Parkinson's disease. Its side effect profile is intermediate to those of
atropine and scopolamine, and can also be used to combat the toxic effects of
Scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form
for any condition is insufficient, although some of its components, in
particular l-atropine which was purified from belladonna in the 1830s, have
accepted medical uses. Donnatal is a prescription pharmaceutical, approved in
the United States by the FDA, that combines natural belladonna alkaloids in a
specific, fixed ratio with phenobarbital to provide peripheral
anticholinergic/antispasmodic action and mild sedation. According to its
labeling, it is possibly effective for use as adjunctive therapy in the
treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous
colitis) and acute enterocolitis.
Berries of belladonna
Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as treatments for various
conditions, although no scientific evidence supports their efficacy. Clinically
and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level
in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution does not contain any of the
original plant, although preparations with lesser dilutions which statistically
contain trace amounts of the plant are advertised for sale.
Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium),
have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid
hallucinations and delirium they produce. However, these hallucinations are most
commonly described as very unpleasant, and recreational use is considered
extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose. In
addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory
disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.
The tropane alkaloids of A. belladonna were used as poisons, and early humans
made poisonous arrows from the plant. In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison
by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius on advice of Locusta, a lady
specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her
husband Emperor Augustus.
Macbeth of Scotland, when he was still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I
of Scotland, used it during a truce to poison the troops of the invading Harold
Harefoot, King of England, to the point that the English troops were unable to
stand their ground and had to retreat to their ships.
European witchcraft and shamanism
Leaves of belladonna
In the past, witches were believed to have used a mixture of belladonna, opium
poppy, and other plants, typically poisonous (such asmonkshood and poison
hemlock) in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings
with other witches. Carlo Ginzburgand others have argued that flying ointments
were preparations meant to encourage hallucinatory dreaming; a possible
explanation for the inclusion of belladonna and opium poppy in flying ointments
concerns the known antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna
(specifically scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver
somniferum (specifically morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state.
This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical)
medicine formularies, and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments
might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft. The antagonism
between opiates and tropanes is the original basis of the Twilight Sleep that
was provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain as well as consciousness during
childbirth, and which was later modified so isolated alkaloids were used instead
of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable
effects from toxicity.