Deadly Nightshade (Atropa bella-donna)

Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade

Deadly nightshade or Atropa belladonna is true to its name; this plant, including the foliage, roots, and pretty blueberries, is extremely toxic and can cause death. It is especially toxic to small children, but also can be lethal for animals if ingested.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a toxic perennial herbaceous plant in the nightshade family Solanaceae, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergine (Eggplant). It is native to Europe and Western Asia, including Turkey. Its distribution extends from Ireland in the west to western Ukraine and the Iranian province of Gilan in the east. It is also naturalized or introduced in some parts of Canada, North Africa and the United States.

Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous perennial rhizomatous hemicryptophyte, often growing as a subshrub from a fleshy rootstock. Plants can reach a height of 2 m (7 ft) (more commonly 1.5 m (5 ft)), and have ovate leaves up to 18 cm (7 in) long. The bell-shaped flowers are dull purple tinged yellow-green toward the base and are faintly scented. The fruits are berries, which are green, ripening to a shiny black, and approximately 1.5 cm (0.6 in) in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though they contain toxic alkaloids (see Toxicity). There is a pale-yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with pale yellow fruit.

A. belladonna is sometimes confused with the much less poisonous black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, belonging to a different genus within Solanaceae. A comparison of the fruit shows that black nightshade berries are spherical, have a dull lustre and grow in clusters, whereas the berries of deadly nightshade are much glossier, twice as large, somewhat flattened and are borne singly. Another distinction is that black nightshade flowers are not tubular but white and star-shaped, bearing a central cone of yellow anthers.

Atropa belladonna is rarely used in gardens, but, when grown, it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries. 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.

Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants known, and its use by mouth increases risk in numerous clinical conditions, such as complications of pregnancy, cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, and psychiatric disorders, among others. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids; roots have up to 1.3%, leaves 1.2%, stalks 0.65%, flowers 0.6%, ripe berries 0.7%, and seeds 0.4% tropane alkaloids; leaves reach maximal alkaloid content when the plant is budding and flowering, roots are most poisonous in the end of the plant’s vegetation period. 

Belladonna nectar is transformed by bees into honey that also contains tropane alkaloids. The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another.

II. How to Get Rid of Belladonna from Your Yard

If you have positively identified belladonna in your yard, take all the necessary precautions to avoid skin contact. Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots, and gloves. If the plant is tall and there is the slightest risk that your face will have contact with the plant, also wear goggles or a full-face respirator.

Dig out the plant with all its roots. Be thorough because belladonna regrows from any roots left in the soil. Safely dispose of the entire plant, including its roots, in the trash. Don’t forget to disinfect the tools you have been using for removing the plant—shovel, pruners—with a chlorine bleach solution (1 cup chlorine bleach per 1-gallon water). When cleaning the tools, wear waterproof gloves and dispose of the solution properly. Wash your work clothes immediately and separately from other clothing.

If belladonna starts to regrow from residual roots, the most efficient chemical to use is a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate. Make sure to apply the herbicide when the shoots are still tiny to minimize the use of herbicide and kill the plant before it can spread again.

III. How to Prevent Belladonna From Spreading

Belladonna spreads rapidly like a weed. The plant dies back during the winter and regrows in the spring from its thick, fleshy roots. Birds that eat the seeds without ill effects spread the plant to other locations in their droppings.

IV. Uses and Benefits 

  • Cosmetics uses

The common name belladonna originates from its historic use by women, as bella donna is Italian for “beautiful woman”. 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 a muscarinic antagonist, 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.

  • Dietary supplements

In the United States, belladonna is marketed as a dietary supplement, typically as an atropine ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicine products. Although such cold medicine products are probably safe for oral use at typical atropine dosages (0.2 milligram), there is inadequate scientific evidence to assure their effectiveness. By FDA guidelines for supplements, there are no regulated manufacturing standards for cold medicines containing atropine, with some belladonna supplements found to contain contaminants.

  • Medicinal uses

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 that combines natural belladonna alkaloids in a specific, fixed ratio with phenobarbital to provide peripheral anticholinergic or antispasmodic action and mild sedation. Donnatal contains 0.0194 mg of atropine. 

According to the FDA and Donnatal 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. Donnatal is not approved by the FDA as being either safe or effective. According to the FDA, Donnatal use has significant risks: it can cause harm to a fetus if administered to a pregnant woman, can lead to heat prostration if used in hot climates, may cause constipation, and may produce drowsiness or blurred vision.

Alternative medicine and toxicity risk

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. In homeopathic practices, belladonna was prescribed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann as a topical medication for inflammation and pain diluted to such an extent that none of the plant was actually present in the preparation. In the form of Doktor Koster’s Antigaspills, belladonna was a homeopathic medication for upset stomach and excessive flatulence, again with no actual belladonna present in the medication. There is insufficient scientific evidence justifying the use of belladonna for these or any other clinical disorders.

In 2010 and 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers against the use of homeopathic teething tablets and gels containing belladonna as used for infants and children, stating that the products may be toxic, causing “seizures, difficulty breathing, lethargy, excessive sleepiness, muscle weakness, skin flushing, constipation, difficulty urinating, or agitation” especially for the lower potencies which are, counterintuitively, the ones that are more likely to include belladonna since they are less diluted.

Recreational drug

Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as Datura stramonium (commonly known as jimson weed), have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce. 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. The main psychoactive ingredients are the alkaloids scopolamine and, to a lesser extent, hyoscyamine. The effects of atropine on the central nervous system include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion. The major effects of belladonna consumption last for three to four hours; visual hallucinations can last for three to four days, and some negative aftereffects are preserved for several days.

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 the advice of Locusta, a woman who specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.

The Scots 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.

Medical historians also suspect that Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, was poisoned using a combination of Atropa belladonna and laudanum.

The Towns-Lambert or BellaDonna Cure was a regimen for treating alcohol use disorder in the early 20th century.

Deadly Nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) Details

Common name Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade
Botanical name Atropa bella-donna
Plant type Herbaceous Perennial
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 3 ft. 0 in. - 4 ft. 0 in.
Width 3 ft. 0 in. - 4 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Loam (Silt)
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green