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; 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. Description Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous
perennial, often growing as a subshrub, from a fleshy rootstock. Plants grow to 1.5 metres
tall with 18 centimetres 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 centimetre 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. Atropa belladona is rarely used in gardens,
but, when grown, it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries. 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 nearby. Naming and taxonomy
The name Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. It
is in the nightshade family, 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.
Toxicity 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 an adult.
The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine, 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. In 2009, A. belladonna berries were mistaken for blueberries by an
adult woman; the six berries she ate were documented to result in severe anticholinergic
syndrome. The plant’s deadly symptoms are caused by atropine’s disruption of the parasympathetic
nervous system’s ability to regulate involuntary activities, such as sweating, breathing, and
heart rate. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same
as for atropine. 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 to be attractive and seductive. 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 cause blindness.
Medicinal uses 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 standardised at 1037 parts hyoscyamine 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 diarrhoea
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. A banana-flavoured
liquid was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.
Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints and 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 results in 100 percent blockade of the muscarinic
acetylcholine receptors, and atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of
anticholinergic drugs. 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 organophosphates.
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 and acute enterocolitis. Alternative-medicinal use
Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as alleged treatments for various conditions.
In clinical use 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 that statistically contain trace amounts of
the plant are advertised for sale. Recreational drug
Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed, 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. Poison
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. Folklore In the past, witches were believed to use
a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy and other plants, typically poisonous, in flying ointment,
which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches. Carlo Ginzburg and 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 and opiate alkaloids
in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism
was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic 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 that was later modified, and so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials.
The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.
Pop Culture Lana Del Rey’s third studio album, Ultraviolence
incorporates “… Deadly Nightshade” into her song also named Ultraviolence. The song
portrays an abusive relationship – but also tells a story about falling in love with such
toxicity. See also
List of plants poisonous to equines List of poisonous plants
References Further reading
“Compounds in deadly nightshade”. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Phytochemical
and Ethnobotanical Databases. Beltsville, Maryland: National Germplasm Resources Laboratory.
Retrieved 2005-07-28. Rita P., Animesh D.K. “An updated overview
on Atropa belladonna L”. International Research Journal of Pharmacy.