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Atropa belladonna

Belladonna or deadly nightshade
Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants 1887
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Solanales
Family: Solanaceae
Genus: Atropa
Species: A. belladonna
Binomial name
Atropa belladonna

Atropa belladonna or Atropa bella-donna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the tomato family Solanaceae, native to Europe, North Africa, Western Asia, and some parts of Canada and the United States. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine, which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations,[1] and are also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics.

It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery; the ancient Romans used it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both were rumored to have used it for murder); and, predating this, it was used to make poison-tipped arrows. The genus name Atropa comes from Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, and the name "bella donna" is derived from Italian and means "pretty woman" because the herb was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive.[2][3]


  • Description 1
  • Naming and taxonomy 2
  • Toxicity 3
  • Uses 4
    • Cosmetics 4.1
    • Medicinal uses 4.2
      • Alternative-medicinal use 4.2.1
    • Recreational drug 4.3
    • Poison 4.4
    • Folklore 4.5
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Atropa belladonna

Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous perennial, often growing as a subshrub, from a fleshy rootstock. Plants grow to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall with ovate leaves 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long. The bell-shaped flowers are purple with green tinges and faintly scented. The fruits are berries, which are green, ripening to a shiny-black, and approximately 1 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals (see Toxicity) that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids.[4] There is a pale-yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with pale-yellow fruit.

Atropa belladona is rarely used in gardens, but, when grown, it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries.[5] It is naturalized in parts of North America, where it is often found in shady, moist locations with limestone-rich soils. It is considered a weed species in parts of the world,[6] where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils.[7] Germination of the small seeds is often difficult, due to hard seed coats that cause seed dormancy. Germination takes several weeks under alternating temperature conditions, but can be sped up with the use of gibberellic acid.[8] The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting. This plant is a sign of water nearby.

Naming and taxonomy

The name Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753.[9] It is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which it shares with potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry, and chili peppers. The common names for this species include belladonna, deadly nightshade, divale, dwale,[10] banewort, devil's berries, naughty man's cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry.[11]

The name Atropa is thought to be derived from that of the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Greek fates or destinies who would determine the course of a man's life by the weaving of threads that symbolized his birth, the events in his life, and finally his death, with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the last of these.[12][13] The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian language, meaning "beautiful lady";[10] originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in women.[12][13]


Flowers of belladonna

Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere.[14] All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids.[15] The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste.[11] The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably lethal.[16][17] The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another.[18] Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult.[11][15]

The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties.[19][20] The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.[19][21][22] In 2009, A. belladonna berries were mistaken for blueberries by an adult woman; the six berries she ate were documented to result in severe anticholinergic syndrome.[23] The plant's deadly symptoms are caused by atropine's disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system's ability to regulate involuntary activities, such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same as for atropine.[24]

Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis.[25] However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering harmful effects.[22] In humans, its anticholinergic properties will cause the disruption of cognitive capacities, such as memory and learning.[20]



The common name belladonna originates from its historic use by women - Bella Donna is Italian for beautiful lady. Drops prepared from the belladonna plant were used to dilate women's pupils, an effect considered to be attractive and seductive.[2][3] Belladonna drops act as an muscarinic antagonist, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size.[26] Belladonna is currently rarely used cosmetically, as it carries the adverse effects of causing minor visual distortions, inability to focus on near objects, and increased heart rate. Prolonged usage was reputed to cause blindness.[27]

Medicinal uses

Belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory, and to treat menstrual problems, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, and motion sickness.[19][28] At least one 19th-century eclectic medicine journal explained how to prepare a belladonna tincture for direct administration to patients.[29]

Belladonna tinctures, decoctions, and powders, as well as alkaloid salt mixtures, are still produced for pharmaceutical use, and these are often standardised at 1037 parts hyoscyamine to 194 parts atropine and 65 parts scopolamine. The alkaloids are compounded with phenobarbital and/or kaolin and pectin for use in various functional gastrointestinal disorders. The tincture, used for identical purposes, remains in most pharmacopoeias, with a similar tincture of Datura stramonium having been in the US Pharmacopoeia at least until the late 1930s. The combination of belladonna and opium, in powder, tincture, or alkaloid form, is particularly useful by mouth or as a suppository for diarrhoea and some forms of visceral pain; it can be made by a compounding pharmacist, and may be available as a manufactured fixed combination product in some countries (e.g., B&O Supprettes). A banana-flavoured liquid (most common trade name: Donnagel PG) was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.

Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints and motion sickness, and to potentiate the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of opioid analgesics. It was formerly used in a painkiller called "twilight sleep" in childbirth.[30]

carbamate poisoning, and is loaded in an autoinjector for use in case of a nerve gas attack. Atropinisation (administration of a sufficient dose to block nerve gas effects) results in 100 percent blockade of the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, and atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of anticholinergic drugs.

Hyoscyamine is used as the sulphate or hydrobromide for GI problems and Parkinson's disease. Its side-effect profile is intermediate to those of atropine and scopolamine, and can also be used to combat the toxic effects of organophosphates.

Hyoscyamine was the primary alkaloid in Asthmador, a nonpresciption treatment for the relief of bronchial asthma, until Asthmador was discontinued.

Scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form for any condition is insufficient,[19] although some of its components, in particular l-atropine, which was purified from belladonna in the 1830s, have accepted medical uses.[22] Donnatal is a prescription pharmaceutical, approved in the United States by the FDA, that combines natural belladonna alkaloids in a specific, fixed ratio with phenobarbital to provide peripheral anticholinergic/antispasmodic action and mild sedation. According to its labeling, it is possibly effective for use as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous colitis) and acute enterocolitis.[31]

Berries of belladonna

Alternative-medicinal use

Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as alleged treatments for various conditions.[32][33] In clinical use and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution does not contain any of the original plant,[33] although preparations with lesser dilutions that statistically contain trace amounts of the plant are advertised for sale.[34]

Recreational drug

Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium), have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce. However, these hallucinations are most commonly described as very unpleasant, and recreational use is considered extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose.[35][36][37] In addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.[38]


The tropane alkaloids of A. belladonna were used as poisons, and early humans made poisonous arrows from the plant.[39] In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius on advice of Locusta, a lady specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.[39][40]

Macbeth of Scotland, when he was still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I of Scotland, used it during a truce to poison the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, King of England, to the point that the English troops were unable to stand their ground and had to retreat to their ships.[13]


Leaves of belladonna

In the past, witches were believed to use a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock), in flying ointment, which they applied to help them fly to gatherings with other witches. Carlo Ginzburg and others have argued that flying ointments were preparations meant to encourage hallucinatory dreaming; a possible explanation for the inclusion of belladonna and opium poppy in flying ointments concerns the known antagonism between tropane alkaloids of belladonna (to be specific, scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (to be specific, morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies,[41] and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft.[42] The antagonism between opiates and tropanes is the original basis of the twilight sleep that was provided to Queen Victoria to deaden pain as well as consciousness during childbirth, and that was later modified, and so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.[43][44]

See also


  1. ^ Kuhn, Cynthia; Swartzwelder, Scott; Wilson, Wilkie; Wilson, Leigh Heather; Foster, Jeremy (2008). Buzzed. The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. New York:  
  2. ^ a b Hofmann, Albert; Schultes, Richard Evans (1987). Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use. New York: Van der Marck Editions. p. 88.  
  3. ^ a b Tombs S, Silverman I (2004). "Pupillometry: A sexual selection approach". Evolution and Human Behavior 25 (4): 211–228.  
  4. ^ Kay QON (2008). Edible fruits in a cool climate: the evolution and ecology of endozoochory in the European flora. In: Fruit and Seed Production: Aspects of Development, Environmental Physiology and Ecology (Society for Experimental Biology Seminar Series) (Ed. by C. Marshall and J. Grace). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 240.  
  5. ^ Stuart, David (2004). Dangerous garden: the quest for plants to change our lives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 49.  
  6. ^ (belladonna) | USDA PLANTS"Atropa bella-donna"PLANTS Profile for . Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  7. ^ Stepp JR (June 2004). "The role of weeds as sources of pharmaceuticals". J Ethnopharmacol 92 (2–3): 163–6.  
  8. ^ Genova E, Komitska G, Beeva Y (1997). L. seeds"Atropa Bella-donna"Study on the germination of (PDF). Bulgarian Journal of Plant Physiology 23 (1–2): 61–66. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  9. ^ "Solanaceae Atropa belladonna L.". Plant Name Details.  
  10. ^ a b Spiegl, Fritz (1996). Fritz Spiegl's Sick Notes: An Alphabetical Browsing-Book of Derivatives, Abbreviations, Mnemonics and Slang for Amusement and Edification of Medics, Nurses, Patients and Hypochondriacs. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis. pp. 21–22.  
  11. ^ a b c Grieve, Margaret; Leyel, C. F. (1971). Modern Herbal.  
  12. ^ a b  
  13. ^ a b c R. Groombridge, ed. (1839). The Naturalist: Illustrative of the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms. R. Groombridge. p. 193.  Notes: v.4-5 (1838-1839)
  14. ^ "Herbarium: Selection of species from European flora". 
  15. ^ a b , Summary Report"Atropa Belladonna"Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products, (pdf). The European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products. 1998. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  16. ^ "The poison garden website". 
  17. ^ Royle ex Lindl)"acuminata L. or its variety Atropa belladonna"Belladonna (. 
  18. ^ "Belladonna". 
  19. ^ a b c d "Belladonna". Medline Plus. 2009-12-16. Archived from the original on 20 December 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-29. 
  20. ^ a b Giancarlo Pepeu, Maria Grazia Giovannini (2004). "Acetylcholine: I. Muscarinic Receptors". In Gernot Riedel, Bettina Platt. From messengers to molecules: memories are made of these (illustrated ed.).  
  21. ^ Mallinson T (2010). "Atropa Belladonna"Deadly Nightshade: . Focus on First Aid (15): 5. 
  22. ^ a b c Lee MR (March 2007). "Solanaceae IV: Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade" (PDF). J R Coll Physicians Edinb 37 (1): 77–84.  
  23. ^ Mateo Montoya A, Mavrakanas N, Schutz JS (2009). "Acute anticholinergic syndrome from Atropa belladonna mistaken for blueberries". Eur J Ophthalmol 19 (1): 170–2.  
  24. ^ Potter, Samuel O.L. (1893). A Handbook of Materia Medica Pharmacy and Therapeutics. London: P. Blakiston's. p. 53. 
  25. ^ North Carolina State University Department of Plant Biology (2000). "Poisonous Vascular Plants". NC State University. Archived from the original on 6 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  26. ^ "Atropine Eye Drops". Archived from the original on 8 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  27. ^ Wood, George Bacon (1867). A Treatise On Therapeutics, And Pharmacology Or Materia Medica Vol1. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. pp. 792–795. 
  28. ^ Ebadi, Manuchair (2007). Pharmacodynamic Basis of Herbal Medicine. CRC Press. p. 203.  
  29. ^ Joseph R. Buchanan, R.S. Newton (1854). Wm. Phillips and co., ed. "Officinal preparations". The Eclectic Medical Journal (Wm. Phillips and co.). 
  30. ^ "Twilight Sleep: The Dammerschlaf of the Germans". Canadian Medical Association journal 5 (9): 805–808. 1915.  
  31. ^ "Donnatal Extentabs Prescribing Information". PBM Pharmaceuticals. 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-04. 
  32. ^ Vaughan, John Griffith; Patricia Ann Judd; David Bellamy (2003). The Oxford Book of Health Foods. Oxford University Press. p. 59.  
  33. ^ a b Brien S, Lewith G, Bryant T (November 2003). "Ultramolecular homeopathy has no observable clinical effects. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled proving trial of Belladonna 30C". Br J Clin Pharmacol 56 (5): 562–8.  
  34. ^ example of website selling different dilutions of belladonna
  35. ^ Dewitt MS, Swain R, Gibson LB (1997). "The dangers of jimson weed and its abuse by teenagers in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia". West Virginia Medical Journal 93 (4): 182–5.  
  36. ^ Micke MM (October 1996). "The case of hallucinogenic plants and the Internet". J Sch Health 66 (8): 277–80.  
  37. ^ Cummins BM, Obetz SW, Wilson MR (June 1968). "Belladonna poisoning as a facet of pschyodelia". JAMA 204 (11): 1011.  
  38. ^ Hardy TK, Wakely D (1962). "The amnesic properties of hyoscine and atropine in pre-anæsthetic medication". Anaesthesia 17 (3): 331–336.  
  39. ^ a b Michael (1998). Alkaloids : biochemistry, ecology, and medicinal applications. New York: Plenum Press. p. 20.  
  40. ^ Timbrell, John (2005). The poison paradox : chemicals as friends and foes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr. p. 2.  
  41. ^ "Belladonna.—Belladonna". Henrietta's Herbal. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  42. ^ Kuklin, Alexander (February 1999). How Do Witches Fly?. DNA Press.  
  43. ^ Kowalchik, Claire; Carr A Hylton W (1987). Herb gardening. Rodale. pp. 1 and 158.  
  44. ^ Harner, Michael J. (1973). Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. pp. 123–150.  

Further reading

  • "Compounds in deadly nightshade". USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Beltsville, Maryland: National Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Retrieved 2005-07-28. 
  • Rita P., Animesh D.K. "An updated overview on Atropa belladonna L" (PDF). International Research Journal of Pharmacy. 
  • Berdai, Mohamed Adnane; Labib, Smael; Chetouani, Khadija; Harandou, Mustapha (17 April 2012). "Atropa Belladonna intoxication: a case report". Pan African Medical Journal 11: 72.  

External links

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