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Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, black henbane

Summary

So poisonous that the smell of the flowers produces giddiness but, in some cultures, used for ritual and recreational purposes due to its strong hallucinogenic properties.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the black henbane is just one of a series.

Family

Solanaceae

Meaning of the Name

Hyoscyamus
From Greek ‘húos’, ‘pig’ and ‘kúamos’, ‘bean’ thought, by some, to be because the smell was as unpleasant as pigs, by others, to be because hogs would eat the seedpods.
 
niger
Black for the seeds and root.

Common Names and Synonyms

henbane, black henbane, hyoscyamus, hog's-bean, jupiter's-bean, symphonica, cassilata, cassilago, deus caballinus, henbell, jusquiame.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains tropane alkaloids called, hyoscine (scopolamine), hyoscyamine (L-atropine), and atropine (DL-hyoscyamine).

Causes dry mouth, thirst, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, warm flushed skin, dilated pupils, blurred vision and photophobia, vomiting, urinary retention, tachycardia, pyrexia, drowsiness, slurred speech, hyperreflexia, auditory, visual or tactile hallucinations, confusion and disorientation, delirium, agitation and combative behaviour. In severe cases there may be hypertension, coma and convulsions.

Most modern cases of poisoning seem to result from its consumption as an hallucinogenic. It 1985, it was reported that eating henbane was part of a game played by children in Turkey. It is said that two children died as a result.

The smell of the flowers can cause giddiness.

Incidents

There are many reports of its effects when taken either accidentally or for its hallucinogenic effects. In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh reports the case of nine people who ate the roots and suffered various effects. The source is given as a Dr. Patouillat in a paper published in Philosophical Transactions Vol. 40, page 446, published in 1738. They all suffered convulsions, contortions of the limbs and face and those who were not rendered speechless could only howl. All recovered but for two to three days after they reported that everything appeared to be scarlet in colour.

Seedpods on Hyoscyamus niger

Ripening seedpods

A Dr. Stedman, in 1750, reported the case of seven people who made a broth with the leaves. They all suffered delirium, bradycardia, slavering and hallucinations which led them to believe everything around them was in danger of falling. The three most seriously affected became insensible and did not recognise their friends.

A 34 year old woman, treated by a Dr. White, experienced symptoms within ten minutes of drinking a tincture of Hyoscyamus, thinking it to be a black draught (a popular laxative of the time). She suffered a burning sensation in her limbs which lost their power, giddiness, intense thirst and a purple rash especially around her neck and face which became swollen. When Dr. White first saw her, four hours after ingestion, she was almost insensible and unable to speak. Her tongue was swollen and dry and her pupils dilated. Three hours later, she could hardly see and could not move her limbs. Twenty eight hours after the poisoning, her condition began to improve but it was six days before the use of her legs began to return. She had no memory of what had happened and suffered ongoing short-term memory loss.

Similar symptoms were experienced by nine people in one family who were fed on a soup made with roots that the mother had collected thinking them to be parsnips.

But the best report of the effects of the plant comes from Gustav Schenk who, when a young man, while staying in a remote village studying plants, decided to experiment with the effects of black henbane. He roasted some seeds and inhaled the fumes given off. In ‘The Book of Poisons’ he describes the effects.

Hyoscyamus niger in flower

His description is incomplete as he says that one of the key effects is to obliterate memory. Within a quarter of an hour he suffered great pain and physical discomfort and was aware that he had been poisoned and felt close to death. He says it was a cause of great amusement though this didn’t last long and was replaced by the feeling that his body was separating into its component parts. His arm and foot began talking to him and then he was convinced that his body was about to dissolve. At this point he experienced the sensation that he was flying and the terror that his body might separate completely was balanced by the joy of flying.

Though his visions were of soaring high above the ground he never lost the sense of being seriously ill and the conflict between the constant urge to move and the lack of the strength to move gave him great discomfort.

When the visions subsided they were replaced with nausea and pain plus a ‘grey misery’ filling his mind which lasted for some time.

Seeds visible in Hyoscyamus niger seedpods

Seeds visible within the pods

But the most famous use of hyoscine remains 'Dr.' Hawley Harvey Crippen's killing of his wife, known by her stage name of Belle Elmore, early in 1910. Recently, there have been attempts to suggest that Crippen was innocent some going as far as to claim that the remains found under the floor of the couple's house were not those of Mrs Crippen and that Crippen was framed by the police but the basis of these claims is not supported by a reading of the trial transcript.

In December 2009, the UK's Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Crippen's distant relative who had applied for the case to be referred to the appeal court was not a close enough relative for the court to hear an appeal even if the CCRC referred it. For that reason, the CCRC did not review the case.

My own view, set out in my 'Medical Murderers' talk, is that though Crippen may not have set out to murder his wife, he was responsible for her death and, by the standards of the day, would still have suffered the death penalty for his actions.

Folklore and Facts

In the August, 2008 edition of 'Healthy and Organic Living', celebrity chef,  Antony Worrall Thompson, was asked if he used any wild foods in his dishes. He replied 'We use a lot of nettles at this time of year, mainly for soup. The weed henbane is great in salads.' As soon as the magazine was published readers started pointing out the toxicity of henbane and a correction was rapidly issued. Worrall Thompson said he had meant to say 'fat hen' not henbane. (Chenopodium album is the plant usually understood to be fat hen though the name is applied to other plants.) It will be interesting to see whether, as happened with rhubarb, the false story persists because readers of the original publication are not aware of the correction.

The seed heads look like a piece of jawbone complete with a row of teeth. This plant was, therefore, used in dentistry from ancient times. The hallucinogenic, soporific effects of the plant would have made people forget the toothache.

Various ways to administer henbane to treat toothache have been used. In Anglo-Saxon England it was believed that worms in the teeth caused toothache. At that time, it was believed that worms were the cause of all ills. Anglo-Saxon folklore talks of a great battle with a giant worm which resulted in the worm being cut into nine pieces and the nine pieces becoming the nine ‘flying venoms’ that were believed to be the cause of all pain and illness.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

The 'jawbone' formed by the seed heads

This belief led to charlatan medicine men administering henbane seeds in a bowl of hot water held close under the chin. Through sleight of hand they would introduce small pieces of lute string and claim that these were the dead worms thus demonstrating the efficacy of their 'magic' potion.

It is often said that henbane was the poison used to kill Hamlet’s father in Act 1 scene v. Different versions of the text call the poison ‘hebenon’ or ‘hebona’. The text talks of ‘With juice of cursed hebenon’ but goes on later to call it a ‘leperous distilment’. It is this description which leads some scholars to propose that the poison must have been an extract from wood rather than simple plant juice. The Wikipedia entry for hebenon suggests that it was an extract of yew but Marshall Montgomery in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Jul., 1920), believes ‘hebenon’ derives from ‘ebony’ and was in fact Lignum vitae, which was thought to be a variety of ebony.

Lignum vitae contains guaiac which is used as a traditional treatment for rheumatism but, it is claimed, can cause a condition which looks like leprosy. Possible side effects of using guaiac include shortness of breath so it may be that a sufficient dose could produce respiratory arrest.

It is quite hard to identify many of the poisons referred to by Shakespeare. Whether he did not trouble to research his substances or disguised the identities to avoid criticism from pedants is impossible to know.

Henbane is, generally, a key component of the 'soporific sponge', used to achieve anaesthesia for the performance of surgery. Its precise origin is impossible to determine but one of the first published accounts is found in the 'Antidotarium' of Nicolaus Salernitanus, Nicholas of Salerno, printed in 1470 but which would have to have been written in the 12th century if it is the work of Nicholas. In this recipe, the normally quoted formula of opium, henbane and hemlock is augmented with mulberry juice, mandrake, ivy and lettuce.

A sponge would be soaked in the juice of these plants and then dried to be held in stock until required. Wetting the sponge and placing it over the patient's nose and mouth resulted in the inhalation of the narcotic fumes. It is said that sleep lasting up to 96 hours could be achieved so that the body had the opportunity to recover from the trauma of surgery as well as the patient being insensible during the procedure. 

In some cultures, henbane has been used for its psychoactive properties. These uses are dealt with in the 'Phantastica' section of The Poison Garden website.