Friday, 25 September 2015

Medieval Plants: Atropa Belladonna aka Deadly Nightshade

A column looking at medieval plants and what they were use for. (Archive)

Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants 
Latin name: Atropa belladonna
Aka: deadly nightshade, dwale (trance), devil’s cherries, devil’s herb, great morel, dwayberry, banewort, naughty man’s cherries, death cherries…
Description: check it out on wikipedia.

Belladonna, aka deadly nightshade, is a member of the solanum dulcamara family, which also includes the mandrake.  This family of plants has anaesthetic value and were used for pain relief (Fisher 86).  In fact, one of its compounds, atropine, is an effective antidote for some other poisons (Kowalchik 158-159).

The first part of it’s Latin name, Atropa, refers the oldest of the three Fates in Greek mythology.  Atropa was the Fate that cut the thread at the end of a person’s life.  Some people believed she used this plant as a means of cutting that thread (Kowalchik 158-159).  The name Belladonna comes from how Italian ladies used the plant to beautify themselves by adding drops of the plants’ juice to their eyes in order to dilate them.  There was also a legend that the plant itself could turn into a beautiful woman.

The plant is highly dangerous and can kill even if you’re eating an animal that has ingested the plant.  The chemicals are absorbed through the skin and the sap of the plant can cause dermatitis while handling the berries can give you vesiculo-pustular eruptions on your face.  Symptoms show up in as little as 15 minutes and include: dry mouth, burning throat, dilated pupils, intense thirst, double vision, burning in stomach, nausea, hallucinations, rambling talk, and feeble rapid pulse (Kowalchik 151).  Even in small amounts belladonna can be fatal.  Archers used it on their arrow tips (Wikipedia) and it is believed to have been used to poison the troops of Marcus Antonius during the Parthian wars and by soldiers of Macbeth on invading Danes (mixed with wine and given to them during a truce) (Botanical).  

In medieval times it was believed to be the favourite plant of the devil (Kowalchik 158-159) and that he tended the plants during his leisure time, only stopping for Walpurgis, the witches’ sabbath (Botanical).  Hildegard von Bingen stated that the ground it grew on had diabolic influence and that ingesting it would disorder your spirit as if you were dead (Hildegard 75).  Witches were believed to mix belladonna and other poisonous plants (including aconite) to create a flying ointment, which they then rubbed on their skin (some modern historians have argued that its real use was for hallucinatory dreaming) (Wikipedia).  One of its other names, dwale, means trance (the word may derive from the Scandinavian ‘dool’, for delay or sleep, or from the French, ‘deuil’ for grief) (Botanical).


Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2013.

Hildegard von Bingen. Physica: The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Trans. Priscilla Throop. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2011. 

Kowalchick, Claire and William Hylton, Ed. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1998.

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