COMMON NAMES: Banewort, Belladonna, Bouton Noir, Chrottebeeri, Deadly Nightshade, Dway Berry, English Belladonna, Great Morel, Hexenkraut, Jijibe Laidour (Moroccan), Mandragora, Poison Black Cherry, Sleeping Nightshade, Solanum Bacca Nigra, Tollkraut, Uva (Lupina ‘wolf’s berry’), Yerva Mora
Atropa belladonna is a perennial herb which can grow up to 5 feet in height. It has bell-shaped brown-violet flowers and oblong leaves. The fruit is initially green, but turns a shiny black color and is about the size of a cherry when ripe. Belladonna blooms in the summertime and often bears fruit at this time, as well. The plant produces an attractive nectar, which bees collect and turn in to a psychoactive honey. When consumed, this honey causes visions (Ratsch 1998, 81).
Belladonna is indigenous to central and south Europe. It later spread through Western Europe and down to North Africa. It can grow at altitudes of up to 6000 feet! Belladonna prefers shade and requires chalky soil to grow. The easiest form of cultivation is to take cuttings from new shoots or layers of the root. This must be done in the spring. Fewer than 60% of A. belladonna seeds are viable, so cultivation from seeds is difficult, although they are used in commercial cultivation (Morton 1997).
TRADITIONAL USES: Since ancient times, Belladonna has been well known for its poisonous properties, and applications in witchcraft, sorcery, and other forms of magic. It has even been suggested that belladonna was eaten by the dinosaurs, leading to their extinction through poisoning and strange visions that they were not able to integrate. The name of the genus, Atropa, comes from Atropos, the third of the Greek Fates, she who cuts the thread of life and brings the end of the life cycle (Ratsch 1998, 80).
The name belladonna is Italian for “beautiful woman”. The name comes from the practice that Italian women had of dripping the berry juice in to their eyes in order to dilate them. At this time, large black eyes were thought to be the epitome of beauty, and as Belladonna contains atropine, which causes temporary eye dilation, it assisted many women in achieving that ideal. In later times, Belladonna juice became very important in the field of eye medicine, and the atropine derived from Belladonna is still used to dilate the eyes by modern opthamologists (Vonarburg 1996).
In many areas, belladonna was added to beer and palm wine to increase inebriating effects. During the Middle Ages, such beverages were used as a chemical weapon of sorts – the Scots added Belladonna berry juice to dark beer, and gave the beverage to the Danes, with whom they were warring. The Danes greedily consumed the beverage, and were then easily overpowered in their resulting stupor (Vonarburg 1996 cited in Ratsch 1998, 80).
Hildegarde von Bingen did write about Belladonna, but by this time the plant was famous for being used in pagan rituals, and was much denounced as a dark spirit. The herb was likely used in the famous witches’ ointments, and was regarded by many as demonic. Indeed, this plant has often been regarded negatively, probably due to the lethal toxic states it can create (Ratsch 1998, 80).
Belladonna was used in a similar way to mandrake in ancient times, and may have been used as a mandrake substitute when that rare plant could not be found. In one Celtic ritual, a fumigation of Belladonna would be inhaled on the full moon preceding Samhain (November 1st), following a 14-day fast. On the same day, a tea made from Amanita muscaria was also consumed. This combination would place the individual into a trance state, from which she would serve as an oracle, establishing a direct connection with the divine in order to answer questions and predict the future (Magister Botanicus 1995 cited in Ratsch 1998, 83).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The leaves of A. belladonna have the highest alkaloid content in May or June and are best harvested then. The leaves may then be dried in the shade and stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. The fruit are best harvested when almost ripe and may then be dried in a well ventilated location. Traditionally, the leaves and berries were used in smoking blends that also contained Amanita muscaria and Cannabis indica.
Consuming one or two fresh berries creates mild perceptual changes one to two hours after consumption. Three to four berries may be taken as a psychoactive aphrodisiac. Three to nine berries is a hallucinogenic dose. Any dose higher than nine berries is considered lethal, and for children, just one or two berries may bring death. In certain individuals and particular body chemistry compositions even a small quantity of Belladonna may prove fatal, and may also bring very uncomfortable and dangerous delirious states, so it is recommended that no one attempt to directly consume this plant (Ratsch 1998, 82).
The only safe method of use for belladonna is as an incense. One traditional incense blend combines belladonna leaves and flowers, fool’s parsley, acorns, vervain leaves, peppermint leaves, and thistle leaves. This incense creates a potent space for meditative trance and divination. However, no details about appropriate proportions are available (Ratsch 1998, 82).
Belladonna berries may be mashed, fermented and distilled into alcohol, and have been used as additives to beer, mead, palm wine, and grape wine. They are an ingredient in the Moroccan spice mixture known as ras el hanout (Norman 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 82).
MEDICINAL USE: The Sumerians used belladonna to treat numerous diseases brought on by demons – depressions, psychoses, and other psychic ailments (Ratsch 1998, 83). In Morocco, dried Belladonna berries are mixed with water and sugar to make a tea that eases depression and has aphrodisiac effects on men. A small dose of this tea is said to clear the mind, to allow one to perform intellectual tasks, and to improve memory. In Nepal, belladonna is taken as a sedative (Venzlaff 1977 cited in Ratsch 1998, 83).
In the nineteenth century, root and herb extracts were used for whooping cough, nervous ailments, scarlet fever, epilepsy, skin diseases, eye inflammation, and urinary and respiratory tract infections (Schneider 1974 cited in Ratsch 1998, 83). Belladonna is also used regularly in homeopathy as a support for the nervous system (ABC Homeopathy).
Belladonna relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract, and is thus valuable in relieving intestinal cramps. The alkaloid atropine reduces mucus, and is thus often found in nasal sprays and decongestants, and may also be helpful for those suffering from asthma. The plant may also be used to treat opiate overdose and muscarinic mushroom poisoning (Voogelbreinder 2009, 97).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The entire Belladonna plant contains tropane alkaloids in varying quantities. In the living plant, hyoscamine is the dominant alkaloid. This is converted to atropine in the drying and storage process. The alkaloids in belladonna are transferred to the tissues of animals who consume the plant. In one case, an entire family experienced hallucinations after eating a rabbit. Rabbits are known to be fond of belladonna, and it is not at all toxic to them, so chances are he had enjoyed a nice snack sometime before being eaten (Voogelbreinder 2009, 97).
The effects of consuming belladonna are similar to those of consuming Datura and Brugmansia. Within fifteen minutes of consumption, arousal, often erotic will occur. Euphoria, crying fits, agitation, thought disturbance, confusion, screaming, diverse hallucinations, frenzy, rage and madness often occur as well. Death may result from respiratory paralysis. The effects last from three to four hours, with effects on the vision lasting three to four days (Gabel 1968).
Visions produced by belladonna are usually described as threatening, dark, demonic, and profoundly terrifying. Most individuals who have consumed belladonna at hallucinogenic doses have indicated a strong desire to never repeat the experience. The alkaloids contained in belladonna cause the mucous membranes to become very dry and make the face turn red, while dilating the pupils and accelerating the pulse (Ratsch 1998, 84). Due to its highly toxic nature, it is not recommended that one consume belladonna in any form unless specifically directed to do so by a doctor, licensed herbalist, or homeopath.
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Morton, J. Major Medicinal Plants: Botany, Culture and Uses. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1977.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.