Belladonna Plant Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety

Belladonna Plant Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
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Table of Contents

Commonly known as the “deadly nightshade,” the belladonna plant is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae)– a group of vegetables that include bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. Though its cousins are safe to consume, the belladonna plant is so notoriously poisonous that it appears in Shakespeare. It is believed that belladonna is the poison Juliet takes to appear dead in Romeo and Juliet. Belladonna technically classifies as psychedelic, but it can cause delirium and seriously unpleasant effects. Nonetheless, it has been used in medicine, cosmetics, poisons, and witchcraft for centuries–if not longer. 

What You Will Learn About Belladonna

  • The belladonna plant is a member of the nightshade family.
  • Despite being highly toxic and considered a “deadly nightshade,” belladonna has been employed medicinally and cosmetically for centuries.
  • Its flowers are violet and greenish in color and its berries are dark purple/black and about the same size as cherries.
  • Belladonna contains tropane alkaloids; scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine which are psychoactive and used in medicine.
  • As a homeopathic treatment, belladonna treats illnesses that manifest symptoms that are similar to those that belladonna poisoning produces. 
  • Medications with scopolamine, which is an alkaloid in belladonna, treat nausea and motion sickness, stomach and intestinal issues, muscle spasms, Parkinson’s Disease. It is also used as a surgical anesthetic. 
  • In witchcraft, belladonna is a traditional herb. Witches made an ointment with it that made them “fly.” 
  • Side effects include: 
    • Headaches.
    • Convulsions.
    • Loss of consciousness.
    • Inability to urinate or sweat.
    • Delirium. 
    • Spasms.
    • Nightmarish hallucinations.
  • Ingesting belladonna orally is potentially life-threatening. Do not consume unless under the supervision of a licensed professional. 

What is Belladonna?

The “deadly nightshade” is a plant indigenous to Europe, America, and Western Asia. A tall bushy plant, the belladonna grows about 4-5 feet and has violet and greenish flowers, and dark purple/black-colored berries that are about the same size as a cherry. Do not be fooled by the appearance. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic and psychoactive due to the tropane alkaloids that it contains. These include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. They can block the functions of the body’s nervous system which regulates salivation, sweating, pupil size, urination, digestive functions, etc. 

The main psychoactive ingredients are the alkaloids scopolamine and to a small degree hyoscyamine. These can cause serious health complications. In addition, the effects of atropine on the central nervous system are potentially severe if not irreparable.

If ingested, the effects of belladonna can last for three to four hours, visual hallucinations can last for three to four days, and some adverse aftereffects could continue for several days or an indefinite period of time. 

Vocab’ Break 

Alkaloid: A member of a large group of chemicals that are made by plants and have nitrogen in them.

Tropane alkaloids: A class of alkaloids. All of the compounds within this class have different effects on the body even if they have similar chemical structures. Cocaine is a tropane alkaloid. Scopolamine, found in a variety of medicines, is able to pass the blood-brain barrier and produce dose-dependent hallucination and psychoactive effects.

Blood-brain barrier: A hundred years ago, scientists injected blue dye into an animal’s bloodstream and discovered that the tissues of the whole body turned blue except for the spinal cord and brain. The BBB is a barrier–border control–that allows certain materials to pass through and keeps others out of the brain. In that sense, it protects the brain to ensure its environment is constant. 

The central nervous system consists of the spinal cord and brain. Being that scopolamine and atropine are able to cross the BBB, and block certain functions that the central nervous system regulates, they are used in medicines that treat nausea and motion sickness, stomach and intestinal issues, muscle spasms, and Parkinson’s Disease. Scopolamine is also used as a surgical anesthetic. 

Other Names

  • Atropa Belladonna. 
  • Deadly Nightshade.
  • Atropa Acuminata. 
  • Poison Black Cherries.
  • Suchi.
  • Devil’s Cherries. 
  • Devil’s Herb.
  • Murderer’s berries.
  • Sorcerer’s berries.

Common Ways to Use Belladonna

The toxic belladonna plant has been consumed in different forms for centuries. The tropane alkaloids that make it so dangerous are also used in medicine. It is important to note that these medications could cause complications and adverse effects. 

Medicinal Use

  • Motion sickness. 
  • Diverticulitis. 
  • Spastic colon. 
  • Stomach ulcers.
  • Parkinson’s disease. 
  • Irritable bowel syndrome. 
  • Excessive nighttime urination. 
  • Pink eye. 

Aside from prescribed medications, in the United States, belladonna is marketed as a dietary supplement. Typically, atropine from the belladonna is an ingredient found in over-the-counter cold medicine. However, dietary supplements do not require approval from the FDA. Though manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe, they don’t need to prove their safety or effectiveness before they are marketed. The FDA does not have manufacturing guidelines for medicines that contain atropine. Some belladonna supplements have been found to have contaminants. 

Homeopathic Use

Homeopathic medicine uses belladonna to treat Illnesses that manifest symptoms similar to those that belladonna poisoning triggers. This includes the common cold, earache, fever, menstrual cramps, headaches, sunstroke, delirium, etc. By highly diluting belladonna, it purportedly activates the body’s natural healing response without poisoning or death.  

At the National Cancer Institute of Milan, Italy, a study indicated that homeopathic remedies of belladonna can help relieve the adverse side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer. 

Psychedelic Use

As a psychedelic, belladonna induces vivid hallucinations and delirium. Users commonly describe the experience as terrifying and unique. Very little knowledge exists about how to approach this substance outside of a medical context without severe risk.

One user, however, claims that there was a method of approaching belladonna as a psychedelic. Though we cannot confirm the historical basis of this system, this user suggests that typically one began by smoking belladonna, because that was the mildest way to do so. If there weren’t any adverse effects, then one might gradually work up to making a belladonna tea. After that, the user might eventually be able to eat one berry on the night of a full moon. If there was no adverse reaction to that, the person would wait until the next full moon to try eating one more berry than they did the previous time. 

History & Traditional Uses

Death, hallucinations, beauty, seduction, and magic–the belladonna plant has a fascinating history of applications and use.

The formal name for belladonna is Atropa Belladonna. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus formally named the plant in 1753 and understood its toxic nature and potential value. The name Atropa comes from the Fates from Greek Mythology. The three Fates were responsible for the thread of a human’s life. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures and gives the length to one’s life, and Atropos cuts it. The plant got its namesake from the Fate that ends life. Belladonna means “beautiful woman” in Italian, which was a reference to the first widespread use of the plant. 

During the Renaissance, Venetian noblewomen dilated their pupils with belladonna eyedrops to beautify their appearance. A painting by Venetian painter Titian in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France features a young Venetian woman who may have used belladonna drops to enhance her eyes. 

The belladonna had multiple applications as a medicinal substance that predated the Renaissance. Physicians have long used it as a surgical anesthetic. Also, one of the oldest uses of belladonna that continues to this day is to reduce milk secretion during lactation. Typically, women would apply a belladonna paste to their nipples. In rural India, women still use a paste to treat breast abscesses. This may have contributed to cases of breast gangrene. 

Perhaps one of its most effective uses historically is as a poison. The ancient Romans put belladonna on the tips of their arrows. Also, the deadly nightshade allegedly killed Macbeth, the King of Scotland, Emperor Augustus of Rome, and Emperor Claudius of Rome. 

In the 19th century, it became formally used as a medicinal treatment for a variety of illnesses.

Medicinal Uses Include: 

  • Pain relief.
  • Anti-inflammatory.
  • Muscle relaxant.
  • Whooping cough.
  • Hay fever.
  • Skin diseases.
  • Pupil dilation before surgery.
  • Photophobia (abnormal sensitivity to light).
  • Gout.

Witchcraft

In witchcraft, the belladonna is a traditional herb used to aid in astral travel, divination, attracting spirits, sleep, and in some forms of Dark Magic. Historically, it appears that witches ingested belladonna through the skin, sweat glands or rectum, and the vaginal area. Belladonna was one of the ingredients in an ointment that would make witches “fly.” 

Flying Ointment

The first record of the recipe and usage of the flying ointment dates back to the late Middle Ages. As a hallucinogenic salve, it contained belladonna and other plants rich in tropane alkaloids. Witches would rub the ointment on their body, and/or a broom which would, in turn, make them fly.

Whether they were actually flying, tripping that they were flying, or dreaming that they were flying is unclear. The tropane alkaloid hallucinogens tended to induce sleep and dreams of flying, “wild rides,” and “frenzied dancing.”

The mucous membranes best absorb the ointment, which portrays the image of the flying witch with a sexual quality. Apparently, the iconic image of a female witch on a broomstick implies that the witch applied the flying ointment to the vaginal area. 

How were the witches able to consume it being that it’s so toxic? One theory suggests that mixing belladonna and opiates might have allowed for a less toxic outcome. That theory isn’t backed up by textual evidence. The argument for the topical route of administration, however, does hold more credibility. Regardless, belladonna and opioids have a historic relationship as a painkiller.

Belladonna and Opium

During the Edwardian era, physicians used belladonna and opiates to aid in childbirth. The belladonna and opium combo still exists as a suppository used to relieve moderate to severe pain that isn’t responsive to non-narcotic painkillers. 

Belladonna: An Addiction Cure?

There are two stories about belladonna as a means of overcoming addiction. In 1909, Dr. Alexander Lambert claimed that he had found a cure for alcoholism and drug addiction using a mixture of belladonna, xanthoxylum (prickly ash) and hyoscyamus (henbane). He said the treatment took less than five days, with results often “so dramatic that one hesitates to believe it possible.” 

Bill Wilson, prior to co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous, was famously an alcoholic who could never quit. In 1934, he checked himself into a Manhattan clinic for wealthy alcoholics and the doctors apparently administered a treatment they called a “belladonna cure.” 

Alcohol withdrawal may induce hallucinations and tremors so it is difficult to ascertain what caused his. However, after two or three days of this belladonna treatment, a blinding white light finally shone through his hospital window and “…a great peace stole over me, and I thought, no matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still alright.” After this experience, he abstained from drinking for the rest of his life, and he formed A.A. Originally, Wilson wanted to integrate psychedelic therapy into the A.A. program. 

Commonly Reported Effects of Belladonna

Belladonna is highly dangerous to ingest orally. The atropine disrupts the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to regulate involuntary activities such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. It can harm cognitive capacities such as memory and learning. 

The antidote for belladonna poisoning is an anticholinesterase such as physostigmine or pilocarpine.

According to two user accounts that tried belladonna, it resulted in a state of delirium with hallucinations that lasted days. The state that the plant typically causes in a person is traumatizing and can even result in PTSD. Very few users indicate a belladonna trip as valuable or pleasant. 

Effects Include:

  • Headaches.
  • Convulsions.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Inability to urinate or sweat.
  • Delirium. 
  • Spasms.
  • Nightmarish hallucinations.
  • Enlarged pupils.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • A feeling of flight. 
  • Loss of balance.
  • Memory loss up to several days after ingesting. 
  • Rash.

Safety Precautions

Though there are multiple uses of belladonna as a medication, one still has to take precautions before using it as such. There are a number of conditions that belladonna could complicate such as acid reflux, fever, rapid heartbeat, gastrointestinal tract infections, high blood pressure, constipation, and urination problems. Belladonna also has negative interactions with certain medications as well such as allergy and anti-depression meds. 

However, belladonna is a traditional plant that witches still engage with. Some put it under their pillow to encourage dreaming, others dance in front of it during the harvest, and perhaps some witches, and people, have successfully used it as a psychedelic trip to their benefit. The belladonna plant is so toxic that any ingestion whatsoever is ill-advised unless prescribed by a licensed professional. As a psychedelic, the outcome could be life-threatening and permanently damaging. 

FAQ

Is Belladonna Legal?

Yes, it is legal. Probably because its effects can be so severe that it is not a substance one takes more than once. 

What is Belladonna Used for?

Medications with tropane alkaloids, which the Belladonna plant contains, are used for anti-inflammatory, pain relief, motion sickness, Parkinson’s disease, spastic colon, stomach ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome. Also, witches have historically used it for spells, divination, and prophetic dreaming. 

What does Belladonna Mean?

Belladonna means “beautiful woman” in Italian. 

Where Does Belladonna Grow?

Belladonna grows in Europe, America, and Western Asia. 

What Does Belladonna Look Like?

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows about 4-5 feet and has violet and greenish flowers, and dark, blackberries about the same size as a cherry. 

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