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.