During the Medieval Renaissance, Italian women used this plant to dilate their pupils, which was highly fashionable. However, women were not the only ones that used this herb. Sorcerers and poisoners soon found that an intake of belladonna caused hallucinations, delirium, and a range of other effects on the body. When taken in a certain amount, it could also cause death.
Linnaeus, the great Swedish naturalist of the 18th century, called the plant Atropa Belladonna from this notable and different toxic effect. Atropos was one of the three witches who, in the Greek myths, had the life thread of all humans in her hands. Atropos was supposed to cut the thread at a whim.
In the 19th century, biochemistry and physiology developments allowed scientists to isolate atropine, an essential alkalide the belladonna contains. Scientific research discovered many effects of atropine in the body, as well as its therapeutical applications. In controlled doses, it is currently irreplaceable in medical science, and especially in anesthetics.
Belladonna Plant Scientific Facts
- Other names: Black cherry, deadly nightshade, dwale, poison black cherry.
- French: Belladone.
- Spanish: Belladona.
- Environment: The plant grows wild in mountainous and shady forests in southern and central Europe and South America.
- Description: Vivacious plant of the Solanaceae family, which grows up to 180 cm high, oval-shaped; large, solitary, bell-shaped purple or violet flowers, and bright blackberries similar to cherries.
Healing Properties and Warnings
The whole plant, and especially its leaves, contain potent alkaloids (atropine and hyoscine). Atropine is parasympathetic, that is to say, a substance that blocks the transmission of the nervous pulse at the tips of the parasympathetic nervous system. These are its most essential properties:
- Mydriatic. It produces dilation of the pupils.
- Antispasmodic. It relaxes the digestive tract and the urinary system, and muscles, thus alleviating spasms and colics.
- Antisecretory. It decreases the secretions of all digestive glands, including salivary glands (it causes a dry mouth).
- Antiarrhythmic. Used for bradycardia (slow heartbeat rate) and also to regulate the heartbeat rate.
- Antiasthmatic. Relaxes the muscles of the bronchi, increasing their diameter (broncho-dilating effect).
There are many medicinal uses of the belladonna plant and its most important active component, atropine. It is widely used in ophthalmology because of its effects on the pupils. It is also used for spasms and colic of the urinary and digestive systems and heart rate disorders.
The berries of the belladonna plant, mildly sweet, look like cherries. Therefore, children can mistake them. Around ten berries can kill an adult, and only three or four berries can kill a child. The poisoning appears with nervous excitation, dilated pupils, blurred vision, dry mouth, tachycardia, and facial reddening. First aid consists of inducing vomiting and administering charcoal dissolved in water, to which magnesium sulfate can be added. The victim must be immediately taken to a hospital.
Belladonna as a medicinal herb is not recommended since the correct dose is quite tricky to apply, thus producing poisoning. Font Quer, a great Spanish pharmacist, and botanist wrote in his book Medicinal Herbs; The Renewed Dioscorides that he caught a cold one day and had asthma symptoms. He prepared what seemed to be a mild infusion of belladonna leaves. A few hours later, he could not swallow; he was suffering from the side effects of a belladonna overdose.
Only professionals can correctly use the belladonna plant, which can kill as well as heal. Due to its decisive action, the use of its active principle, atropine, is safer in medicines whose dose is perfectly known.
George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. “Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants.” George D. Pamplona-Roger, M.D. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Ed. Francesc X. Gelabert. Vols. 1 San Fernando de Henares: Editorial Safeliz, 2000. 352, 353. Print.[belladonna plant]