Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger[1]), also known as stinking nightshade, is a plant of the family Solanaceae[1] that originated in Eurasia,[1] though it is now globally distributed.

Toxicity and historical usage

It was historically used in combination with other plants, such as mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura as an anaesthetic potion, as well as for its psychoactive properties in "magic brews."[1][2][3] These psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight.[4] Its usage was originally in continental Europe, Asia and the Arabic world[5], though it did spread to England sometime during the Middle Ages. The use of Henbane by the ancient Greeks was documented by Pliny. The plant, recorded as Herba Apollinaris, was used to yield oracles by the priestesses of Apollo.[1]

Henbane can be toxic, even fatal, to animals in low doses. Its name dates at least to 1265. The origins of the word are unclear but "hen" probably originally meant death rather than referring to chickens.[6]. Hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other tropane alkaloids have been found in the foliage and seeds of the plant.[1] Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations,[1] dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and ataxia have all been noted.

Not all animals are susceptible; the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Cabbage Moth eat henbane.

It was sometimes one of the ingredients in grut, traditionally used in beers as a flavouring, until replaced by hops in the 11th to 16th centuries (for example, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 outlawed ingredients other than barley, hops, and water).[7]

In 1910, an American homeopathic doctor living in London, Hawley Harvey Crippen, allegedly used scopolamine, an alkaloid extracted from henbane, to poison his wife.[8]

Henbane is thought to have been the "hebenon" poured into the ear of Hamlet's father[2][9] (although other candidates for hebenon exist[10]).


In 2008 British celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson recommended Henbane as a "tasty addition to salads" in the August 2008 issue of Healthy and Organic Living magazine. He subsequently said that he had made an error, confusing the herb with Fat Hen, a member of the spinach family. He apologised, and the magazine sent subscribers an urgent message stating that Henbane "is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten."[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Roberts 1998, p. 31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Anthony John Carter MB FFARCS (March 2003). "Myths and mandrakes" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 96: 144–147. 
  3. A. J. Carter (1996-12-21). "Narcosis and nightshade". British Medical Journal 313 (7072): 1630–1632. 
  4. Schultes & Smith 1976, p. 22
  5. Joseph Perez, Janet Lloyd, The Spanish Inquisition, Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN 0300119828, ISBN 9780300119824, p229 footnote 10]
  6. Anatoly Liberman, J. Lawrence Mitchell (2008). An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. U of Minnesota Press. pp. 108–110. ISBN 9780816652723. 
  7. Dan Rabin, Carl Forget (1998). The Dictionary of Beer and Brewing. Taylor & Francis. xii. ISBN 9781579580780. 
  8. "The Crippen Case – Discovery of Poison", The Times, Wednesday, September 7th, 1910, p3
  9. "Hebenon". Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828). 
  10. Anatoly Liberman, J. Lawrence Mitchell (2008). An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. U of Minnesota Press. pp. 110–111. ISBN 9780816652723. 
  11. "TV chef Worrall Thompson recommends deadly weed as salad ingredient". The Guardian. August 4, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 


External links

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

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