Atropa belladonna ~ Belladonna ~ Nightshade Plant Guide
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.
Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous perennial, often growing as a subshrub, from a fleshy rootstock. Plants grow to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall with 18 centimetres (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 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals (see Toxicity) 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 near by.
Naming and taxonomy
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 an adult.
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. 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.
See Also ….
Solanaceae, or nightshades, are an economically important family of flowering plants with a worldwide distribution. The family ranges from herbs to trees, and includes a number of important agricultural crops, medicinal plants, spices, weeds, and ornamentals. Many members of the family contain potent alkaloids, and some are highly toxic, but many cultures eat nightshades, in some cases as a staple food.
The name Solanaceae derives from the genus Solanum “the nightshade plant”. The etymology of the Latin word is unclear. The name may come from a perceived resemblance of certain solanaceous flowers to the sun and its rays. In fact one species of Solanum (Solanum nigrum) is known as the “sunberry”. Alternatively, the name could originate from the Latin verb solari, meaning “to soothe”, presumably referring to the soothing pharmacological properties of some of the psychoactive species of the family.
Solanaceae includes a number of commonly collected or cultivated species. Perhaps the most economically important genus of the family is Solanum, which contains the potato (another common name of the family is the “potato family”), the tomato and the aubergine or eggplant.
Another important genus Capsicum produce both chili peppers and bell peppers.
The genus Physalis produces the so-called groundcherries, as well as the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), the Cape gooseberry and the Chinese lantern. The genus Lycium contains the boxthorns and the wolfberry Lycium barbarum. Nicotiana contains, among other species, the plant that produces tobacco.
Some other important members of Solanaceae include a number of ornamental plants such as Petunia, Browallia and Lycianthes, the source of psychoactive alkaloids, Datura, Mandragora (mandrake), and Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade).
With the exception of tobacco (Nicotianoideae) and petunia (Petunioideae), most of the economically important genera are contained in the subfamily Solanoideae.