Kindling the Fire at Home & in the Community

B is for Belladonna

Belladonna is known by many names “Deadly Nightshade”, “Death Cherries” & “Devil’s Berries” are a few of them. It’s true name is atropa belladonna. The name is derived from the Greek fate, Atropos, who is responsible for cutting the thread of life and also for it’s beautiful appearance, as “belladonna” translates to “beautiful lady” in Italian. This lovely herb is one of those “looks can be deceiving” instances. Every part of it are poisonous, from the deep purple tubular bell shaped flowers to the shiny black berries and the fuzzy leaves.

Due to it’s toxic potency it has been used prior to 400 AD as a surgical anesthetic, as a poison (Emperor Augustus was reported to have been poisoned with belladonna by his wife Livia, as was Emperor Claudius by Agrippina), in the tips of arrows & surprisingly enough… cosmetically. Someone apparently thought it was attractive for women to have dilated pupils once upon a time and somehow discovered that belladonna, if used in eye drops, blocked receptors that prevented the muscles in the eye to constrict the pupil. What they didn’t know though, was that this was not a good idea and many of them ended up blind from its repeated use.

Belladonna was also said to have been used as a recreational drug to induce hallucinations. Rumor is that the hallucinations are very unpleasant. I can’t imagine even risking the possibility of accidental overdose for what’d surely amount to a really horrid experience, but apparently someone did back in the day. Sadly, many people died trying to get high from it. I guess the risk is what made it seem alluring.

Belladonna isn’t all bad though. She just deserves a bit of respect and special consideration for anyone who wishes to keep her around. While ingesting it or using it without knowing its true and full potential to end your life is a reality, it has been used in several positive ways. This is one of those herbs that you shouldn’t be afraid of, but you also shouldn’t take it’s abilities lightly. For anyone who decides they want to keep this in their personal apothecary, I suggest keeping it, along with any other deadly herbs you have, in a locked cabinet separate from the rest of your herbs. If you are interested in growing it, I would opt not to if you have animals or children. It would only take ingesting 2-5 berries to cause the death of a child. Does that have your undivided attention? It should.

As I said, belladonna isn’t all bad. Various belladonna tinctures, decoctions and powders, as well as alkaloid salt mixtures, are produced for pharmaceutical use. Several medications have been created with the help of belladonna, such as:

    • Atropine– Used for bradycardia (low heart rate), nerve gas attacks (blocks the receptors so that the agent cannot effect the person being attacked), secretions & bronchoconstriction in dying patients (inhibits salivary & mucus glands), certain heart arrythmias & blockages and eye examinations (dilates pupils).
    • Donnatal– Used to treat intestinal cramping & nausea; often part of GI cocktails. Also used for patients suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Enterocolitis.
    • Hyoscyamine– Used to treat various GI disorders such as: peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, colic & cystitis. It has also been used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

This past Yule, my Aunt Dana sent me the very pretty canister in the photo to the right and a note that said “I found this in an antique shop and was told that this used to contain belladonna. Thought you’d like it & I thought it was cool.” I agree, it is cool! However, I wanted to find out more about this jar so I decided to research “Hiera Picra”. Turns out, this was most likely a canister that contained Hiera Picra. What is Hiera Picra, you ask? Well, it means “sacred bitters” in Greek & was a name given to many medicines in the Greek pharmacopoeia. It’s most commonly known as a combination of canella bark, aloe vera & honey. It was used as an emetic and induced purging. Nothing nice about the medication. So while it’s not a belladonna canister, it’s still pretty cool. Maybe someone opted to store belladonna in it long after its initial purpose had worn out. Who knows? Whatever the case may be, it’s mine now. I haven’t started storing anything in it yet, but perhaps I’ll re-purpose it, yet again, to store herbs, resins or other witchy things.

My point in writing about belladonna was to indicate that there are always two sides to a coin. Firstly, not every beautiful thing is harmless. I think we sometimes take things at face value without really learning about them. That’s a bad habit to get into. Whether it’s considering eating berries or picking a mate… you should base your decision on more than what something appears to be. Secondly, while belladonna is easily capable of causing death, it is also responsible for improving life if used judiciously in some instances. There are many things that are capable of causing harm & even death to us. Being aware of their potential and respecting them is key to maintaining a harmonious coexistence with so much of what this life is bound to set in our path.



9 responses

  1. This is a beautiful post ! I work with nightshade and a few other baneful herbs now . It took me 3 yrs to get comfortable with this sister . I was also like you very cautious . I’ve been a Mum and now granny for 30 yrs and so very much never had poisnos plants in the yard excpting lily of the valley . then this plant came to me . I was extremely fearful at first but did not banish her from my yard I really prayed about her being with me and turns out she is supposed to be here . I wrote not long ago about the baneful herbs and the recent hype about flying potions . it scares me because many are trying this who should not be doing so . I am an expereinced person when it comes to my herb magic and I am not called to use these herbs in this way .I think many are sucked into using them to be cool , to fit in etc. I’m going to write about shamanism again and how most of us in fact do not need aide in achieving vision .
    great post ☺
    Thanks ♥

    March 13, 2012 at 9:03 am

    • Thank you so much Roxie! I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      I haven’t done much work with baneful herbs at all, but they always seem to pique my interest. I am one of those people who love the look of belladonna. I think it’s really beautiful & would love to grow some, however, I don’t have a secure enough yard to feel comfortable doing so. Not to mention, it’s really difficult to germinate from seeds I’ve heard.

      I have only caught wind of “flying potions” recently and thought they were a thing of the distant past. It bothers me to know there are young people trying that sort of thing. Surely there are easier ways to achieve a similar state without the risk of death or serious injury. Even if one was to use an herb with the intent of achieving a euphoric or “flying” sense they could do so with any number of non-toxic herbs or natural hallucinogens. I’m not interested in that sort of thing, but to each their own.

      Check back soon, I should have my C post done sometime today. 🙂


      March 13, 2012 at 9:18 am

  2. Jen

    Very interesting post. Belladona is a beautiful plant, but I haven’t done more than “book-study” poisonous herbs and plants due to having small children and several pets. Foxglove is another I know of that is beautiful and extremely poisonous, but also beneficial in that digitalis (heart medication) is derived from a compound found in the plant. As with all plants, they are here for a reason, we just have to figure it out. Whether it is that they are edible, medication, or just pretty to look at.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:05 am

    • All of the poisonous plants interest me because I feel like they don’t get as much love as others. I don’t know what I’d ever use belladonna for, as I have no interest in poisoning anyone, but I wonder what they can be used for magically.

      Maybe once I have a fenced in yard I could consider a small belladonna plant for the sheer look of it, for now though, with the wide open space of my yard & a middle school literally across the street, I wouldn’t feel comfortable.

      Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      March 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm

  3. Excellent post – I particularly like your attitude towards ‘experimentation’ (my own post sort of touched on alternatives to that since apparently using drugs is ‘cool’ lol)

    Nicely balanced and informative article you have there – I’m looking forward to more.

    I also started late and only did one for each letter so you’re not alone.

    March 13, 2012 at 11:32 am

    • I think that if people feel the need to ‘experiment’ with belladonna that they’re selfish risk takers. The possibility of death is enough to ensure I never intentionally ingest even the slightest bit of the plant in its natural state.

      Glad I’m not the only late-comer. This is a really fun idea though. I’m enjoying it!

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your feedback!

      March 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm

      • No problem,I’m loving reading all the blogs that are coming out of this project. Having a problem trying to read ’em all though, there’s just soo many excellent writers out there.

        I don’t think I’ve even seen belladonna growing anywhere here, it doesn’t like the land we are on – I imagine it’s not been encouraged either. I would like to see it growing sometime.

        March 13, 2012 at 6:06 pm

  4. This is a terrific post! I’ve always been interested in nightshade, but actually know little about it. I’ll for sure be looking into in more depth now. I have some growing in the garden, for Pete’s sake! It’s probably about time, right??

    March 14, 2012 at 2:49 am

  5. very beautiful plant!

    February 5, 2014 at 6:45 am

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