Some plants have rightly earned their larger-than-life reputations. As one of the longest-used recreational drugs, murdering toxins, and beneficial medicines, deadly nightshade is certainly one of the most historically significant plants. Used to induce hallucinations, to murder, for beauty, and for ecstasy, deadly nightshade is a plant with abundant history.
The deadly nightshade is so notorious that botanists named an entire plant family after it. The nightshade family, Solanaceae, is home to some of the finest garden plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers are all in the nightshade family.
The Solanaceae family is a relatively large plant family. There are over 2,500 species within it. Most of these are native to the Americas. On one hand, some of these plants produce scrumptious fruits, tubers, and vegetables. On the other hand, many other nightshade plants contain toxic chemicals. The family is full of powerful botanical compounds.
The most common of these toxic plants is tobacco. The leaves of the live tobacco plant are actually incredibly potent and can cause tobacco field workers to get a form of poisoning.
Less known, but more toxic plants in the Solanaceae family include datura, brugmansia, henbane, and mandrake. These plants can all cause death with only a small dose. Some risky folks use these plants recreationally as drugs because they induce hallucinations.
In fact, this group of plants has been used recreationally for thousands of years. Users typically report these hallucinations to be quite unpleasant. It is far too easy to overdose on these wild plants because their chemical compounds are extremely potent. Additionally, the concentration of these compounds can vary widely between individual plants.
Deadly nightshade falls squarely into this long history, both as medicine and a poison.
The deadly nightshade plant is native to Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. It is an herbaceous perennial that grows about three to four feet tall and wide. It has naturalized in shady areas of the eastern United States. In the U.S. it usually grows near creek beds.
All parts of the plants are poisonous. The roots contain the highest concentration of toxins. In fall, the deadly nightshade produces dark, black berries. While these berries may look enticing, they are dangerous!
Some of the earliest mentions of nightshade are in classical Greek and Roman times. The god Dionysis, or Bacchus, was the god of wine and ecstasy. Sounds like a fun god, right?
It should come as little surprise that Dionysis has a cult following. This wasn’t a cult following like Rocky Horror Picture Show or Monty Python but a real cult.
This cult was a bit scandalous. They brewed a special wine, called Bacchus wine. This wine contained grapes, nightshade berries, and other herbs. As a group, the cult would drink this wine and enter a sort of hallucinatory, trance-like state. It is believed that orgies often followed the dancing. What else would you expect from the god of wine and ecstasy?
Moving forward to the middle ages, deadly nightshade became associated with witches and sorcerers. Witches believed the plant to be closely tied to the devil himself. They brewed potions with deadly nightshade, mandrake, and other toxic plants for fortune-telling. As potent hallucinogens, it’s easy to see how using these plants led people to think witches were crazy.
Have you ever thought of where the witch’s broomstick came from? Look no further than deadly nightshade. Allegedly, witches infused bear lard with nightshade, mandrake, hemlock, and henbane. They called this salve ‘flying ointment’, which they used on themselves to produce hallucinations.
The most receptive areas of the skin to topical ointments are the genitals. Witches apparently used broomsticks to apply the flying ointment to this area.
In the Italian Renaissance, nightshade experienced a new life. When a deadly nightshade tincture is dropped into the eyes, it dilates the pupils. Dilated pupils were considered the ultimate beauty during this time. Therefore, women used nightshade eyedrops before galas and masquerades to court men.
This is where we finally encounter the origins of the scientific name for deadly nightshade; Atropa belladona. In Italian, bella dona means ‘beautiful woman’. However, this beauty-inducing plant could have some negative side effects. Along with its neuroactive chemicals, chronic use of nightshade eyedrops could cause blindness!
Some other common names for deadly nightshade include sorcerer’s cherry, witch’s berry, devil’s herb, and murderer’s berry.
In Shakespeare’s famous play, Macbeth, the Scottish poison their enemy’s liquor supply with deadly nightshade. The Scottish defeat the Danes with this sneaky act of poisoning. This Shakespearean plot may actually be based on reality. Real-life Macbeth is thought to have poisoned his enemies in a similar way!
In fact, it was relatively common in Roman times for armies to attempt to poison enemies’ food and liquor with belladonna. Deadly nightshade may have been one of the first biological weapons.
All medicines are toxins at some dosage. However, while the opposite isn’t always true, some toxins also happen to work as medicines. Deadly nightshade has useful medicinal compounds, which made it a staple in the American Civil War medicine kit. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine states “Belladonna could be used to treat a variety of ailments such as neuralgias, whooping cough, scarlet fever, spasmodic asthma, intestinal cramps and to dilate the pupil of the eyes.” In fact, belladonna has been used as an anesthetic since the first century!
So how does nightshade actually affect the body? The most important compound within the plant is atropine. This chemical makes up the other half of the scientific name, Atropa belladona.
Atropine is an anticholinergic. This means that it inhibits the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine interacts with and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system is responsible for digestion, salivation, breathing, heart rate, and urination. In layperson’s terms, the chemicals in nightshade decrease the body’s ability to digest, salivate, urinate, and perform other functions.
Deadly nightshade poisoning sounds extremely unpleasant. According to a 2012 medical study, nightshade can cause “hallucinations, psychosis, agitated delirium, seizures, coma, respiratory failure or cardiovascular collapse.”
The same study noted that in children, nightshade produced “meaningless speech, lethargy, coma and absence of tachycardia are the ominous signs in deadly nightshade intoxication.”
Nightshade can be so toxic that as few as two berries can kill a child. As little as 10 berries are thought to be able to kill an adult. A clinical study from 1911 showed a 12% death rate from people poisoned with nightshade. Even eating meat from animals that ate nightshade can cause nightshade poisoning!
However, since then, the invention of respirators and modern medicine has greatly reduced the number of people who actually die from deadly nightshade poisoning.
Atropine is regularly used in modern medicine for resuscitation. Since it increases the heart rate, atropine can revive a person whose heart has stopped beating. Because deadly nightshade poisoning very rarely leads to death these days, can we really call the plant deadly? It may actually save more lives than it kills! Perhaps we should rename this plant to honor the lives it has saved rather than the lives it has taken.