Recipes using Atropa belladonna, the plant more commonly known as deadly nightshade, have been used throughout history and in folklore for everything from killing pain to killing your enemies. All parts of the plant contain dangerous alkaloids such as scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine. The levels of these compounds can vary dramatically from plant to plant due to variations in cultivation, and how the plant is stored or dried can also affect this plant’s toxicity. Because of this, establishing safe dosages is nearly impossible, and the use of Atropa belladonna as an herbal remedy, particularly one made at home, is not advised.
The “belladonna” in deadly nightshade’s botanical name is from the Italian word for “beautiful lady.” Women used to take small doses of this muscle relaxing plant to enlarge their pupils, thus mimicking the look of sexual attraction. “Atropa” is derived from Atropos, one of the three fates in Greek mythology. Atropos was the aged crone who cut thread and ended a person’s life. The plant grows wild in much of Europe and has been said to be cultivated and cared for by the devil himself, perhaps because of deadly nightshade’s long-standing association with witchcraft. Atropa belladonna was one of the ingredients in “flying potions,” concoctions that were taken internally or externally by witches. The plant does have psychotropic effects and may very well have created and out-of-body experience similar to that of flying. Macbeth’s troops used Atropa belladonna to poison an invading army’s wine, making the soldiers sleepy, disoriented, and easy to overpower.
In addition to Atropa belladonna’s use for pupil dilation, tinctures, extracts, and powders made from the plant’s leaves and roots have been used as a painkiller, to ease spasmodic coughing associated with asthma and whooping cough, as a sedative, to treat colds and allergies, colic, motion sickness, sore throats, and to treat Parkinson’s Disease. Small doses have been said to ease heart palpitations, and it has also been used to treat pneumonia and prevent scarlet fever. Internal use is extremely dangerous and should therefore be avoided.
Plasters, ointments, and poultices made from Atropa belladonna have been used to ease the pain and swelling due to rheumatoid arthritis and to treat sciatica and neuralgia. They have also been used to reduce excessive sweating, ease bronchial asthma, treat bruises and sprains, manage corns and bunions, and even cure cancer. As a suppository, Atropa belladonna has been used as a cure for hemorrhoids. Although external use is not as dangerous as internal use, the extreme toxicity of Atropa belladonna and the possibility of ingestion when handling the plant make even external use inadvisable.
Atropa belladonna is toxic and therefore dangerous. When ingested, the plant can cause rapid heartbeat, fever, blurred vision, dry mouth, hallucinations, convulsions, and can interfere with the ability to urinate and perspire. Atropa belladonna can also cause mental problems, spasms, and coma. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should absolutely not take Atropa belladonna. Atropa belladonna can exacerbate existing conditions such as congestive heart failure, constipation, esophageal reflux, fever, stomach ulcers, hiatal hernia, ulcerative colitis, certain types of glaucoma, tachycardia, and gastrointestinal infections or blockage. People with Down syndrome may be extra sensitive to Atropa belladonna. Atropa belladonna may interact adversely with anticholinergic medications.