Professor and plant researcher Henry G. Walters speculated in 1915 that plants were capable of love and that they also had memories, implying that they might also hold a grudge. The deadly nightshade, Atropa Belladonna, he believed, was filled with hatred.
Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. Both names are so Goth the plants should have kohl-lined eyes and dance at night to loud trance music. The Atropa bit is in homage to Atropos one of the three Fates. Atropos was the one that cut the thread of life. Belladonna, from the Italian for beautiful lady, pays tribute to its use in cosmetics. Atropa Belladonna has always been the gothy siren of the apothecary which explains its presence in medicine, perfume, cosmetics, and folklore for over a millennium.
Belladonna is an herbaceous perennial found across Europe, Asia and North America. It flourishes in damp, shady spots, growing to three feet tall with pointed, oval-shaped leaves and purplish brown tubular flowers. The flowers form berries in the fall, changing from green to red, and finally dark black.
Medicinal Uses–Belladonna has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for ailments ranging from headaches, ulcers and menstrual problems to inflammation and cardiovascular disease. It has antispasmodic, sedative, and diuretic properties, and is most commonly known for its uses in ophthalmology for pupil dilation. The name "belladonna" means "beautiful lady," and belladonna berry juice was used historically in Italy to enlarge the pupils of women, giving them a striking appearance. (I, in fact, recently discovered a natural eye drop in my medicine cabinet that contains belladonna.)
The Deadly Nightshade performs its dark magic with the help of an alkaloid called atropine, which causes rapid heartbeat, confusion, hallucinations, and seizures. The symptoms are so unpleasant that atropine has been added to potentially addictive painkillers to keep patients from getting hooked. Atropine has also been used as an antidote to poisoning from nerve gas and pesticide exposure.
Though widely regarded as unsafe, belladonna is taken by mouth as a sedative, to stop bronchial spasms in asthma and whooping cough, and as a cold and hay fever remedy. It is also used for Parkinson’s disease, colic, inflammatory bowel disease, and motion sickness.
Poison- Belladonna is part of the Solanaceae family, which includes Datura (last week’s entry), henbane, mandrake, and the spicy Habanera chili pepper. Poison effects include rapid heartbeat, confusion, feeling hot but not sweating, extreme thirst, hallucinations, spasms, mental problems, convulsions, and coma.
Each belladonna branch shoots to the opposite side of the stalk in an alternating pattern. At the end of each branch, the plant produces buds that become flowers that will bear fruits. The main stalk, rather than growing straight, bends back and forth. It’s crooked.
Magical Uses- Belladonna has a long association with women, witches, herb lore, and murder. It is another ingredient in the infamous Medieval witches’ flying ointment of folklore, which in some iterations contained Belladonna, Datura, Opium Poppies, Monkshood, Wolf’s Bane, and Hemlock.
Belladonna’s history in lore goes back much further, however. It was used in the worship of both Bellona (the Roman goddess of war) and Hecate (the Greek goddess of crossroads, magic, and poisonous plants) to invoke visions and prophecies.
The Deadly Nightshade’s magic is that of a Trickster. She recognizes that ambiguity is the essential nature of the witch, in a culture that craves certainty and imposes limits. She reminds us to accept the danger in life, and to keep an eye out for back-splatter in your magic, even if you strive to ‘harm none.’
Some people view Belladonna as the most problematic herb on the Poison Path that is part of the witch’s way. Even though Datura can be brutal, it does not arise out of meanness as much as from the plant’s ignorance of its own strength. The same cannot be said of belladonna. Not only does it have a lot higher alkaloid content than its weird sisters, it’s highly unpredictable. Material harvested from the same belladonna plant and used in the same quantity by the same person may not have the same effect. That makes it too dangerous to use in pharmacy. My opinion only. In fact, I’m still undecided whether I’ll include it in my garden, at least this first year. I’m posting the planting info for you below, so you can make your own decision.
In the Garden – Soak seeds for two weeks in cold water kelp “tea” in the fridge, changing the water daily. Then sow in typical planning medium, barely covering the seed. Seeds should germinate in 2-4 weeks once they’re in soil. Seeds planted at the same time can be expected to germinate sporadically over several months. Seems to germinate best in a cool environment.
Pot the seedlings once they have formed true leaves. Then transplant to a shaded area in the spring, once danger of frost has passed. Belladonna like soil that is “sweet”—that is, chalky or calcareous, so you may add some gardening and add plenty of organic matter lime to your soil. Composed leaves are great. Set seedling 18” apart. And ALWAYS wear gloves!
Next week is the last of the three “Weird Sisters,” Henbane, Mandrake, and a few other interesting natural poisons. Then…time to celebrate Beltane!
Until then, be safe and continue to wear your mask as you begin to venture out this spring.