Atropa belladonna is also known as belladonna, deadly nightshade, devil’s berries, or beautiful death, among other names (Cross 2012, Rita & Animesh 2011). The plant has earned a reputation for itself as a sort of “temptress” because of the beautiful appearance, yet toxic nature, of its flowers and berries. In fact, its name, belladonna, means beautiful lady in Italian (Campbell 2007). Atropa belladonna has long been known for its toxic properties. It has been used as a poison and a recreational drug. Adding to its negative aura is the fact that it is thought that this plant has been used in practices of witchcraft, divination, and sorcery. The name Atropa comes from the goddess, Atropos, who is one of the three Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. She and the other Fates spun the thread of human destiny, which Atopos could cut off whenever she felt so inclined (Hunziker 2001, Campbell 2007, Cross 2012).
Though the plant has a sinister reputation, it has many positive properties. Atropa belladonna has been found to have many pharmaceutical and therapeutic applications. A member of the Solanaceae family, belladonna is closely related to plants such as tobacco and potatoes, as well as other toxic plants, such as daturas, henbanes, and mandrakes (Campbell 2007). The plant itself is an herbaceous perennial, often 5-6 feet in height when full-grown. It has a purplish stem that is densely covered in short, fine hairs. It has broad, ovate leaves (3-10 inches long) of dark green which are formed in uneven pairs, one leaf in each pair being much larger than the other. Its roots are thick, white in color, fleshy, and about 6 inches in length or more. The inch-long purple, bell-shaped flowers grow solitary in the axils of the leaves. A. belladonna usually flowers between June and September. The fruits of these flowers are beautiful, shiny, black berries that are full of sweet, dark, ink-like juice. These berries are often consumed by animals as a way of seed dispersal despite their toxicity to humans (Rita & Animesh 2011).
- Campbell, E. A. 2007. Don’t say it with nightshades: Sentimental botany and the natural history of Atropa belladonna. Victorian Literature and Culture 35: 607-615.
- Cross, K. 2012. Atropa belladonna L., Solanaceae. Medicinal Plant Monographs 66-74.
- Hunziker, A. T. 2001. Genera Solanacearum: The genera of Solanaceae illustrated, arranged according to a new system 335-340.
- Rita, P. and D. K. Animesh. 2011. An updated overview on Atropa belladonna L. International Research Journal of Pharmacy.