Wednesday’s Weed Walk: Belladonna

Do NOT try this at home, kids! I repeat, DO NOT TRY THIS at home, in the office, in the car on the way to the office, in school, church, the local gym or even the grocery store. Today’s post is strictly for educational and entertainment purposes ONLY! And because this is also the last “weed walk” before Halloween/Samhain, writing a blog post about an herb whose other common names include: Banewort, Devil’s Berries, Naughty Man’s Cherries, Death Cherries, Beautiful Death and Devil’s Herb (Wikipedia), seemed appropriate for the occasion.

I am talking about Atropa belladonna, more commonly known as either Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. This is one of the most deadly plants one can have in their garden as it’s attractive fruits entice the palette–especially that of children’s–yet it takes only 2-3 of those plump, sweet berries to prove lethal for a child. Adults are not immune either though it takes about 10 of those berries to prove lethal for us; lower doses are said to incite hallucinations and, as such, it has a history of abuse as a recreational “drug” but it has some very unpredictable side effects so, again, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! Or anywhere else. And I don’t care how redundant I’m being. This is one of those you can never be too cautious about.

Interestingly, Belladonna also has a history of medicinal uses. Many of the hypnotic properties in this plant also deaden pain and it is used even today in many modern pain relievers. Modern pharmaceuticals have found a way to isolate these painkilling properties to produce Orthodox medicines for treating ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, diarrhea, peptic ulcers, chronic bronchitis, asthma and vertigo, among others. Deadly nightshade/Belladonna contains an anticholinergic agent that blocks the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the central and peripheral nervous systems (Wikipedia), systems that control the parasympathetic nerve impulses. Your parasympathetic nerves control those involuntary movements of the smooth muscles, those that control the gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, your heart, your lungs and many other parts of the body. These are muscles that expand and contract, or function, without any conscious thought on our part. These nerves, we could say, work “behind the scenes” in our bodies, helping us to breathe, digest food and eliminate waste. Which would be one of the reasons this plant is so deadly as too much would likely shutdown these automated systems so we’ll leave this one to the pros…and, perhaps, to the memories of the wise women and cunning men of old.

Of course, in the days of cunning men and wise women–the true crones of old, who were often regarded as witches for their uncanny knowledge of the herbs–Belladonna was more commonly used as an anesthetic to relax, or deaden, the body for surgery, or for the making of poison-tipped arrows for men of war. That it was effective in the latter, and these early surgeries were often unsuccessful, hence, I shall throw another word of caution in here. This is definitely not a “simple” you want to brew in your home-grown apothecary.

However, it is an attractive plant and I know of many who do keep some in the garden for aesthetic purposes. It can grow up to 6’6″ tall with 7″ long, ovate leaves and lovely bell-shaped flowers that are a dull purple in color with just a hint of green and, when ripe, shiny black berries. Bees often make honey from the nectar of the flower. Wild birds and animals often eat the berries, despite their toxicity, dispersing the seeds in their droppings but this plant has proven toxic to many domesticated animals, as well as humans, so this homesteader-in-the-making would rather admire it from afar rather than in the garden.

The name “Belladonna” is Italian for “pretty woman”. In addition to its earlier uses as a medicine, and poison, it was also used by ladies as a cosmetic. A tincture of Belladonna dropped into the eyes will give them a seductive appearance, an appearance that was much favored by earlier women. However, it also distorts the vision, creating a near-sightedness that inhibits one’s ability to focus on things close-at-hand; it also increases the heart rate and, over prolonged periods of time, causes blindness (Wikipedia).

As a quick aside, I am citing Wikipedia throughout and I know this free, online encyclopedia is definitely NOT approved as an appropriate reference academically or professionally but there were enough citations attached to this listing that I decided to use it anyway. As an herbalist, though I would never consider working with such a toxic plant, it is one that I have learned about in various herb classes for safety and educational purposes–enough to know this Wikipedia listing is accurate enough to instill a big WARNING sign over anyone’s intentions to throw caution into the wind on this one. Because it is so deadly, few, if any, of my herbals lists it as a curative. For the sake of this posting, I am more interested in sharing some of the folklore I found about it, folklore that I do have in some home herbals about their magickal uses.

Coming back to some of those hallucinogenic properties, many the wise woman and cunning man was reputed to use Belladonna to “fly”. A common mixture was of Belladonna, the opium poppy, monkshood and/or poison hemlock. What I found was that this combination (and I shudder to think of what sort of “trips” these herbs combined created…)(Again and again, don’t try this at home…) was used in an ointment so, my guess is, as my sources do not give detail, that it was absorbed through the skin–our largest organ. Having had some lightheaded experiences working in the “High” bed in the Herb Garden at Old Sturbridge Village, I can testify that the absorption of potentially toxic, or lethal, plant matter can be quite potent, indeed. In my case, it was Lily of the Valley that had me reeling a bit.

But I digress…

In his excellent book, Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Scott Cunningham also alludes to this ancient practice of using Belladonna “to encourage astral protection and to produce visions, but safer alternatives are available today and belladonna is best avoided’ (53).

May God bless you & keep you!

Works Cited

Atropa belladonna. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web.
Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna. 26 October 2016.

Cunningham, Scott. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Second Edition. Llewellyn Publications, Minnesota: 1985.

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