The plant commonly known as the belladonna is a medium sized perennial shrub. It can grow from two to six feet in height; it normally bears two or three branches and has a distinct purplish colored stem. The belladonna bears dark green leaves and each individual leaf is about three to ten inches in length from base to tip. The belladonna also gives off distinct bell-shaped flowers which are dark purple in color. The belladonna gives out a strong odor when it is crushed or bruised. The belladonna is an extremely poisonous plant and all parts of the plant contain this poison.
This plant is also known by the popular name of “deadly nightshade.” Since the plant is poisonous, using it as a home remedy would be bad judgment indeed. However, despite the very grim reputation that is associated with the plant, the Italians have named the plant belladonna or the “fair lady” in Italian – a name by which it is also known universally. This Italian name of the plant came about according to one story, as Italian women in the past used to drop the juice on their eyes so as to enlarge the pupils, thus, it was used to enhance the appearance of the eyes – a cosmetic effect that beautified the appearance of the face.
Belladonna contains the chemical substance atropine which indeed affects the pupils in the manner described. Even to this day, atropine is used by eye doctors to dilate the pupils during an examination of a patient’s retina. Two other valuable substances are found in the belladonna – these are the chemicals scopolamine and hyoscyamine, these, similar to the compound atropine have a sedative action and bring about relaxation in the smooth muscles of the body. Compounds isolated from the belladonna find a wide range of applications individually or in combination to this day, the chemical constituents obtained from the leaves and root form the basic ingredients used in a variety of antispasmodics are very commonly prescribed to treat intestinal diseases i.e. peptic ulcers, persistent diarrhea, and an irritable colon among other disorders.
Belladonna was recognized as a very poisonous plant even by early Greeks such as Theophrastus, way back in the third century B.C. The term “the Mandragora of Theophrastus” was often used to describe the plant. The plant’s English name, Dwaule, was a derivative of the Dutch word daal, which means “to wander or to be delirious”. The belladonna is a perennial plant, it may be considered to be one of the most important species in the nightshade family of plants. The ancient Greeks gave it the name Atropos, as it was so poisonous, this is the Greek word for inflexible or rigid. The word “atropos” can also be a reference to “one of three Fates who cut the thread of life” in Greek mythology.
The plant species Atropa belladonna is taxonomically classified in the plant family Solanaceae; this plant family also includes common commercial plants such as the potato, the tobacco, and the chili pepper among others. The origin of this species is probably southern Europe and continental Asia, however, the plant is naturalized in many other parts of the world including the new world. The belladonna produces green berries that change to a shiny purplish black color as they ripen. The berries are about the size of the common cherry, however, all are not agreed on the taste of the berries – some say the berry tastes sweet while others say that it tastes bitter. Many people at the same time say that the entire plant possesses a very nauseating odor and they cannot stand the smell.
Contemporary scientists and medical clinicians consider the belladonna as a very important plant due to its content of various chemicals. The fact that this species had an active constituent was known to the early Greek physician Dioscorides in the first century itself, however, it took another eighteen hundred years for the potent chemicals in the plant to be “discovered” or recognized. A chemical was isolated from the belladonna in the year 1809; the chemical had by 1819 been classified as being an “alkaloid” compound. At the present, the full complement of chemicals found in the belladonna has been investigated and we know it contains the poisonous compound atropine, as well as compounds such as scopolamine and hyoscyamine among other useful compounds. The chemical “atropine is extremely poisonous” is noted in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia to this day. Atropine is very potent and it is said that a dilution of only 1 part atropine in 130,000 parts water is enough to induce dilation in the pupil of a cat’s eye. While all the beneficial and poisonous alkaloids are present in every part of the plant, the highest amount of alkaloids is present in ripened fruit and in the green leaves of the belladonna.
The extremely poisonous content of Atropa belladonna has already been mentioned, at the same time, some grazing animals surprisingly eat the plant and the berries without suffering any noticeable ill effects. The poison is probably absorbed into the bodies of such animals as people who eat the meat of these animals often suffer from extreme illness. The skin can also act as a conduit for absorbing the poison in people who actually handle the belladonna plants. Severe cases of dermatitis are also often reported in people who come in direct contact with the sap present in the belladonna.
Some of the physical symptoms that affect people who ingested this plant include an inability to urinate; a rapid increase in the heart beat rate as well as sudden and unexplained fits of laughter. When taken orally, the overdose level is only 600 mg. At the same time, dosage levels that are at any range below this overdose level can also induce dilation of the pupils, the sudden drying out of the mouth, spells of nausea and sudden vomiting, problems such as depression, an increase in the heart beat rate, failure in the movement of muscles, problems such as delirium, physical and mental exhaustion, psychological problems such as hallucinations, a general paralysis of the body, the onset of coma or even death caused by sudden respiratory failure. These physical symptoms may begin to take effect only half an hour after the plant matter has been consumed.
The big question to ask then becomes, why is this plant still considered beneficial if it induces all of these “bad” effects when used by humans? The answer is that there are positive and negative aspects to the use of the plant due to the fact that so many uses for the plant can be found – the plant has good and bad properties depending on how it is used. Belladonna was used by the ancient Romans as a type of biological “weapon” used to contaminate the food reserves and water supplies of their enemies. Belladonna may have also been used in religious rituals of the Greeks and Romans, some believe that the famous Bacchanalian orgies during the course of which women went naked in frenzied dances, literally throwing themselves to the waiting men would not have been induced by the use of alcohol alone, this is because the property of the A. belladonna was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and the plant was probably used during these ritual festivities. Such festive rituals were forced underground on the advent of Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean; one result was that the belladonna began to be associated with the making of sorcerers’ and witches brews. Belladonna was also used in surgical processes in the ancient world. Surgery in the ancient world was performed by applying an herbal concoction made by mixing hemlock, mandrake, A. belladonna and henbane – also known as “sorcerers promenade”, when this paste was applied to the skin it induced a form of unconsciousness and primitive operations were performed using this herbal mixture as a proto-anesthetic.
Another well-known legend associated with the belladonna is that the Scottish army defeated the Danes by supposedly mixing the belladonna in the liquor supply of the latter. The Scotsmen, it is said waited until all the Danes fell into a deep sleep after they drank the spiced liquor and then they murdered the helpless Danes. Belladonna, as has been mentioned before, was also used as an eye cosmetic, and Spanish as well as Italian women dilated their pupils using drops of the juice, only greatly diluted solutions of the plant juice were however used for such purposes as the poisonous nature of the plant was well known. The modern medical field of ophthalmology still gives lays great emphasis on this use of the plant for the dilation of the pupil. Scopolamine, the other active chemical agent present in belladonna was added to morphine in 1902 and was found to be capable of inducing a trance called “twilight sleep”- this effect was found to help reduce the pain during childbirth and lessened the mortality rate. This mixture of two compounds was also the infamous “truth serum” made used of in so many legal battles and court cases years before. One troubling factor is that this so-called “serum” may still be in use in some countries for purposes of “brain-washing”, and other sinister applications. Atropine, the primary chemical in belladonna came into its own during World War II; the Germans had synthesized a type of nerve gas that was lethal, odorless, and colorless. Atropine was the only antidote that could prevent the paralyzing effect of this nerve gas. It is fortunate that the Germans never used the nerve gas in actual combat during World War II. Atropine used in the role of a life-saving chemical is reported more recently from an incident in the state of Tijuana, Mexico, in 1967. The deadly insecticide – parathion – had affected many people when they ingested bread which had been exposed to the dangerous chemical, in this instance, atropine was used as an agent to save many lives from the effects of the insecticide.
A number of medical disorders have also been treated using the chemical atropine in recent times, these disorders include problems such as asthma, a slow heart beat rate or bradycardia, disorders like whooping cough, gastric ulcers, allergen-induced hay fever and most impressive, the chemical has been used in treating tremors and paralysis associated with Parkinson’s disease – a debilitating muscular disease.