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Atropa belladonna

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Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Solanaceae, native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids.[1] These toxins include scopolamine and hyoscyamine which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations.[2] The drug atropine is derived from the plant.

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, and it was used as a poison by early men, ancient Romans, including the wives of two Emperors, and by Macbeth of Scotland before he became a Scottish King.

The genus name "atropa" comes from Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology (the one who cuts the thread of life), and the name "atropa bella donna" is derived from an admonition in Italian and Greek meaning "do not betray a beautiful lady".[3][4][5]


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 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long ovate leaves. The bell-shaped flowers are dull 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 that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids.[6] 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.[7] 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,[8] where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils.[9] 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.[10] The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting.

Naming and taxonomy

The first botanical description was by Carl Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753.[11] 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,[3] banewort, devil's cherries, naughty man's cherries, black cherry, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry.[12]

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 their birth, the events in their life and finally their death; with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the latter.[4][5] The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian language, meaning "beautiful lady";[3] originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face, or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in ladies.[4][5]


Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids.[13] The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste.[12] The consumption of two to five berries by children and ten to twenty berries by adults can be lethal. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another. Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult.[13]

The active agents in Belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties.[14][15] The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.[14][16] The plant's deadly symptoms are caused by atropine's disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system's ability to regulate non-volitional/subconscious activities such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same as for atropine.[17]

Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis.[18] However, cattle and rabbits seem to eat the plant without suffering harmful effects.[16] Its anticholinergic properties will cause in humans the disruption of cognitive capacities like memory and learning.[15]



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 attractive.[19][20] Today it is known that the atropine in belladonna acts as an antimuscarinic, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size.[21] 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.[22]


There is currently insufficient scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form for any condition,[14] although some of its components, in particular l-atropine which was purified from belladona in the 1830s, have accepted medical uses.[16] 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.[23]

Traditional and alternative medicine

A. belladonna has been used in traditional treatments for centuries for an assortment of conditions including headache, menstrual symptoms, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, inflammation, and motion sickness,[14] with at least one 19th century eclectic medicine journal explaining how to prepare a Belladona tincture for direct administration to patients.[24]

Homeopathic remedies prepared from the belladonna plant have been sold as treatments for various conditions, although there is no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of this use.[25][26] Clinically and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution contains no molecules of the original plant,[26] although preparations with much lesser dilutions (which may contain trace amounts of the plant) are occasionally sold.

Recreational drug

Atropa belladonna, along with related plants such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium), have occasionally been used as a recreational drug because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium that it produces. These hallucinations are most commonly described as very unpleasant, however, and recreational use is considered extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose.[27][28][29] In addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.[30]


Atropa belladonna was used by early men in poisonous arrows.[1]

In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.[1][31]

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.[5]


In the past, it was believed that witches used a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy, and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock) in flying ointment 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 (specifically scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (specifically morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies[32], and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft.[33] 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 which was later modified so that isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.[34][35]


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  2. Wilson, Jeremy Foster Heather (2008). Buzzed : the straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York City: W.W. Norton. pp. 107. ISBN 0393329852.,M1. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Spiegl, Fritz (1996). Fritz Spiegl's Sick Notes: An Alphabetical Browsing-Book of Derivatives, Abbreviations, Mnemonics and Slang for Amusemen. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis. pp. 21–22. ISBN 1-85070-627-1.'s+Sick+Notes:+An+Alphabetical+Browsing-Book+of+Derivatives,+Abbreviations,+Mnemonics+and+Slang+for+Amusemen&client=opera&hl=es&source=gbs_search_s&cad=0. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Edward Harris Ruddock (1867). The Homoeopathic Vade Mecum of Modern Medicine and Surgery: For the Use of Junior Practitioners, Students, Clergymen, Missionaries, Heads of Families, Etc (2 ed.). Jarrold and Sons. pp. 503–508. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 R. Groombridge, ed (1839). The Naturalist: Illustrative of the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms. p. 193.  Notes: v.4-5 (1838-1839)
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  8. "PLANTS Profile for Atropa bella-donna (belladonna)". Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  9. Stepp JR (June 2004). "The role of weeds as sources of pharmaceuticals". J Ethnopharmacol 92 (2-3): 163–6. 
  10. Genova E, Komitska G, Beeva Y (1997). "Study on the germination of Atropa Bella-Donna L. Seeds" (PDF). Bulgarian Journal of Plant Physiology 23 (1-2): 61–66. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  11. "Solanaceae Atropa belladonna L.". Plant Name Details. International Plant Names Index. 2003-07-02. Retrieved 2008-03-01. "Solanaceae Atropa belladonna L. Species Plantarum 2 1753 "Habitat in Austriae, Angliae montibus sylvosis."" 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Grieve, Margaret; Leyel C.F (1971). Modern Herbal. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 584. ISBN 0486227995.,+inky+juice&ei=Gvq9R6WgCIfCtAOE4L2eBQ&sig=4lGsladEfMUQwL5EFZHTxG1UFYo. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
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  17. Potter, Samuel O.L. (1893). A Handbook of Materia Medica Pharmacy and Therapeutics. London: P. Blakiston's. pp. 53. 
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Further reading

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Atropa belladonna. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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