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Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Summary

For many, the star of the poison plants. Most people have heard of deadly nightshade even if they have never seen it. The combination of its ability to kill with its use to beautify by dilating the pupils gives it a romantic attraction which is hard to beat. Add to that the hallucinations it may also cause and its fascination is complete.

Its name, 'belladonna', comes from its use by Venetian women to make themselves 'beautiful ladies' by causing their pupils to dilate.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of deadly nightshade is just one of a series.

Family

Solanaceae

Meaning of the Name

Atropa
Named for Atropos, one of the 3 Fates, who held the shears which could cut the thread of life.  Thus, a plant called ‘Atropa’ can end life. In the past, other plants have been called ‘Atropa’ such as Atropa mandragora.
 
Pliny makes no direct reference to the plant.  He talks about ‘Trychnos’, which some call ‘Strychnos’ and which has been identified as Solanum nigrum, black nightshade, and mentions another variety which is very poisonous and, hence, outside his interest.  Dioscorides calls Solanum nigrum, ‘Struchnos kepaios’.
Gerard calls it ‘Solanum lethale’. The name Atropa belladonna is attributed to Linneaeus.

Its similarity to other plants in the Solanum genus suggests that a systematic renaming would, probably, place this in that genus.

Atropa Belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa Belladonna, deadly nightshade


belladonna

Literally, ‘beautiful lady’ coming from its use to promote pupilar dilation, a proven way to increase attractiveness.

Gerard says the Venetians and Italians call it ‘Bella dona’ which would seem to make it a beautiful gift but someone was kind enough to point out that the Venetian dialect does not use double letters in writing so 'bella donna', 'bela dona', 'bela donna' and 'bella dona' are all ways of writing 'beautiful lady'.
 
Mrs Grieve says that ‘the name Belladonna is said to record an old superstition that at certain times it takes the form of an enchantress of exceeding loveliness, whom it is dangerous to look upon’ but she goes on to say that the most popular derivation of the name is from Italian women.  There are a number of online references to the idea of the manifesting enchantress but almost all of them quote Mrs Grieve word for word, though without acknowledging this.

Common Names and Synonyms

deadly nightshade, dwale, devil's herb, love apple, sorcerer's cherry, witches berry, divale, dwayberry.

This is the true 'deadly nightshade'. Some Americans insist on calling Solanum dulcamara by that name rather than woody nightshade or bittersweet. There are many images on the Internet of Solanum dulcamara flowers labelled 'deadly nightshade'.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains tropane alkaloids, notably hyoscine (also called scopolamine), hyoscyamine and atropine. At least five other toxic components have been isolated.

Atropa Belladonna, deadly nightshade

The enticing berries are slightly sweet

Symptoms may be slow to appear but last for several days. They include dryness in the mouth, thirst, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, blurred vision from the dilated pupils, vomiting, excessive stimulation of the heart, drowsiness, slurred speech, hallucinations, confusion, disorientation, delirium, and agitation. Coma and convulsions often precede death.

There is disagreement over what constitutes a fatal amount with cases cited of a small child eating half a berry and dying alongside a nine year old Danish boy who, in the 1990s, ate between twenty and twenty five berries and survived.

A 1996 study of plant poisoning over 29 years in Switzerland found that Atropa belladonna had caused more serious incidents than any other plant (though less than 2 per year on average) and none of these resulted in death.

Though the root is believed to have the highest concentration of the toxins, the berries are usually the cause of accidental poisoning because they look so nice.

Watch a Video

Click on the arrow to watch a short video about poisonous berries, especially the Atropa belladonna.


Incident

In September 2012, a German monk, on a camping trip, ate some deadly nightshade berries after mistaking them for an edible fruit. He was discovered wandering naked by a hiker and rejected all attempts at assistance. The hiker summoned the police who took the monk to a hospital where the cause of his hallucinations and manic behaviour were diagnosed and treated.

A middle-aged woman described how, when she was in her pram, her brother had given her a deadly nightshade berry to eat because he wanted to see what it did to her before trying it himself. She spat it out but, that evening, she was screaming in pain and her skin ‘was coming off’. At the hospital, they wrapped her completely in bandages so that only her eyes were visible. Atropa belladonna can cause a condition like Erysipelas which is a bacterial skin irritation similar to cellulitis. From her description, however, it sounds as though the hospital thought her skin had become photosensitive.

A woman recalled, when in college at the age of 19, being given something to put into her eyes to make her look prettier. She and her friend tried it and, as young people are wont to do, decided to try a second application in case the first hadn’t worked. After the second application she could not see for some time. Could it have been atropine?

This property of atropine is most useful for both eye examinations and treatment of certain conditions. A young girl with restricted vision was being treated with atropine drops. The drops had to be kept refrigerated. Apparently, the bottle fell over and the atropine dripped onto some cooked meat below. Her mother only realised something was wrong when she began hallucinating after making herself a ham sandwich.

Over time 'the Lancet' has carried a number of reports of Atropa belladonna poisoning. In 1846, two separate inquests heard of deaths arising from eating berries being sold by a man called Hillard, a known herb gatherer. Both involved the berries being used in a pie. In one, a husband and wife were taken ill after eating the pie and the husband died. In the other, a three year old boy died after eating some pie made with the berries.

The inquests heard that James Hillard continued to sell the berries in the street in spite of being told that they were from a poisonous plant.  In September, Hillard stood trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Thomas Parker. Evidence was presented that he had not offered the berries to John Ayscocks, the medical botanist who usually bought all his produce, suggesting he knew what they were but, in the face of his denial, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six months.

In 1948, five children were involved in a single poisoning incident. They had all picked and eaten many blackberries as well as berries of Atropa belladonna from plants entwined with the brambles. Though they reported great thirst soon after, it was some hours before serious symptoms appeared. For two of the children, admission to hospital did not occur until the following day. During treatment by means of emetics and enemas, substantial plant material was recovered from three of the children. It was estimated that one boy had eaten up to 40 berries and two girls had had 20 to 30. No material was recovered from the other two boys. All five survived suggesting that the often stated 'three berries are enough to kill a child' is an exaggeration.

Folklore and Facts

The plant is the property of the Devil so anyone picking the berries had better be prepared to meet the Devil face to face. It seems likely that this story was intended to keep children away from the harmful berries since, unusually, they are not unpleasant to eat. They have been described, by those who have never tasted them, as 'intensely sweet' but, in fact, the taste is of an insipid sweetness; not in the least offensive but not so good that one would be tempted to scoff them down. Interestingly, atropine itself has a well reported bitter taste and this leads some people to claim the berry itself is bitter. A claim which indicates that author has never tried tasting the berry.

John Gerard, in his 1597 Grete Herball, cites the case of three boys of Wisbech who ‘did eat of the pleasant and beautiful fruit hereof, two whereof died in less than eight hours after that they had eaten of them.’ The third was saved by being given a mixture of honey and water causing him to vomit, often. He mentions its medicinal uses but, overall, believes it should be banished from the garden and all areas around the house because children, and women, can not be trusted not to be tempted by a ‘berry of a bright shining black colour and of such great beauty’.

It has been used as a murder weapon, most noticeably by Marie Jeanneret, a Swiss nurse who, in 1868, was convicted of the murder of seven patients. Jeanneret was obsessed with the effects of the belladonna and experimented on herself. When she developed such a tolerance for it that she no longer showed any symptoms, she became a nurse tending patients in their own homes in order to be able to experiment on them.

It also features in the 1892 case of Dr. Robert Buchanan who murdered his wife with morphine and put atropine in her eyes to overcome the tell-tale pinpointing of the pupils which is a clear indication of morphine overdose.

When Jane Toppan took to using atropine as well as morphine during the latter part of her murderous career which was brought to an end in 1901, she may have been trying to disguise the pinpointing but, it appears, she was using atropine to counteract the morphine as she experimented to see how close to death she could take someone and still restore them, albeit temporarily, to life.

These cases are amongst those featured in the popular Medical Murderers talk.

In ‘The History of Scotland’, published in 1827, George Buchanan relates how Duncan I, who ruled Scotland from 1034 to 1040, poisoned a whole army of Danes with a liquor treated by an infusion of ‘sleepy nightshade’. The description of the berries ‘which are pretty large, and black when ripe, grow out from the stalk, under the root of the leaves; the taste of the juice is sweet, and almost insipid; the seed is small like the grains of a fig’ suggests it was Atropa belladonna.