Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) is a herbaceous perennial plant native to Europe, SW Asia and NW Africa, which 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 family Solanaceae, it is closely related to plants such as tomato and potatoes, as well as other toxic plants, such as Datura, Hyoscyamus, and Nicotiana (Campbell 2007). The plant itself is a herbaceous perennial, often 1-1.5 m (occasionally up to 2 m) in height, when full-grown. It has a purplish stem that is densely covered in short, fine hairs. It has broad, dark green ovate leaves (6-20 cm long) which are formed in uneven pairs, one leaf in each pair being much larger than the other. Its roots are thick, white in colour, fleshy, and about 15 cm or more in length. The bell-shaped flowers are 2 cm long, purple with a pale base, and grow solitary in the axils of the leaves. It usually flowers between June and September. The fruit are shiny, black berries that are full of sweet, dark, ink-like juice. The berries are often consumed by animals as a way of seed dispersal despite their toxicity to humans (Rita & Animesh 2011).
Other names sometimes used include belladonna, devil’s berries, or beautiful death (Cross 2012, Rita & Animesh 2011). It 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 species name belladonna means beautiful lady in Italian (Campbell 2007).
Atropa belladonna is native to south central Europe, northwestern Africa, and southwestern Asia. The distribution limits are between 32° and 55° N latitude, from sea level in the north of its range (e.g. England) to 1700 m or more in the Mediterranean region. It primarily occurs in areas with well-drained, calcareous soil and shaded woodland habitats, but can also occur on dry, sunny scrubland sites (Blamey & Grey-Wilson 1989; Rita & Animesh 2011; Stace & Meijden undated).
It has been introduced and naturalised in a few other areas, and is occasionally found as a weedy species north to southern Scandinavia (Naturhistoriska riksmuseet 1997), and in some areas of Canada and the United States (Scott 1991).
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Atropa belladonna is a large herbaceous perennial that grows to 1-1.5 m tall, rarely 2 m tall, with an erect posture. It has a stem that ranges from purplish to green in colour and is covered in short, fine hairs. Its roots are thick, white in colour, fleshy, and 15 cm or more in length. It has broad leaves, oval in shape, 6-20 cm long, which are alternate or in uneven opposite pairs (one leaf much larger than the other). The often asymmetrical leaves have a smooth texture and are green in colour. The plants typically start branching at about 20-30 cm from the ground. The flowers are bell-shaped and purple with conspicuous yellow anthers. They are 2-3 cm long and grow in solitude, drooping from the axils of the leaves. The flowers usually appear between June and September, after which they produce dark, shiny black or purple berries containing sweet, dark, ink-like juices. The berries are 1.5-2 cm in diameter and are 2-celled (Blamey & Grey-Wilson 1989; Stace & Meijden undated).
The highly toxic alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine and bellodonnine are present throughout the plant (Cross 2012, Rita & Aminesh 2011, Butcher 1947). The toxins are most prevalent in the roots of the plant, followed by the leaves and flowers, and then the berries, which contain the least amount of toxic alkaloids (Rita & Aminesh 2011).
This plant species is commonly found in disturbed woodland areas. It is also often found growing on rocky hillsides, steep cliffs, and other regions in which the soil content consists of abundant amounts of calcium carbonate. Belladonna is nitrophilous, meaning that it thrives in soils rich in nitrogen. It is frequently found growing in open or uncultivated areas, and is only very rarely found in grass communities (Cross 2012). It also occurs in areas of former cultivation (among ruins) in parts of Europe and as a weedy species in areas where the soil has been disturbed. It seems to grow most abundantly in areas shaded by trees, on limestone or chalk, or on wooded hills. Belladonna plants that are exposed to too much sun often become very stunted in growth (Rita & Animesh 2011). The plants require a moist atmosphere, well-drained soil, and a source of shade (though not excessive shade, since this has also been found to reduce the vigor of the plant) (Butcher 1947).
Seed dispersal in A. belladonna is often accomplished through birds. Birds, especially pheasants, are known to eat many of the berries. Since the seeds are able to cling to both each other and the ovary walls, they can be carried great distances from their parent plant. The seeds are frequently found in bird droppings near bushes, under trees, or near other kinds of convenient perching areas. Humans also disperse the seeds as soil containing belladonna seeds or plants neighboring A. belladonna plants with seeds attached are transported to new locations. The seeds can also be dispersed by gravity when the fruits drop from the plant, usually around January. One additional dispersal method is through water, as the seeds are able to float in water for about 1.5 days (Butcher 1947).
immersed perithecium of Diaporthe chailletii parasitises stem of Atropa belladonna
Foodplant / open feeder
imago of Epitrix atropae grazes on leaf of Atropa belladonna
Plant / associate
fruitbody of Lepiota fuscovinacea is associated with Atropa belladonna
In Great Britain and/or Ireland:
Foodplant / miner
larva of Liriomyza bryoniae mines leaf of Atropa belladonna
Foodplant / feeds on
pycnidium of Conothyrium coelomycetous anamorph of Microsphaeropsis olivacea feeds on Atropa belladonna
Foodplant / saprobe
immersed, or becoming erumpent, often in elongated groups of 2 to 5 pycnidium of Phomopsis coelomycetous anamorph of Phomopsis hysteriola is saprobic on dead stem of Atropa belladonna
Foodplant / saprobe
fruitbody of Sistotremastrum suecicum is saprobic on dead stem of Atropa belladonna
Other: minor host/prey
Though Atropa belladonna is sometimes found as an understory herb, it often occurs in open communities dominated by other plants. Species often associated with the plant include Sambucus nigra, Urtica dioica, Arctium lappa, Mercurialis perennis, Bryonia dioica, Rubus caesius, Glechoma hederacea, Verbascum thapsus, Scrphularia nodosa, Ligustrum vulgare, and Pteridium aquilinum, among others (Butcher 1947).
The plant is protogynous and produces and conceals nectar at the base of its ovaries. Bees, particularly honeybees and bumblebees, are the principal pollinators of A. belladonna (Butcher 1947). Birds, such as pheasants, as well as some insects, including the fleabeetle and Potato beetle, and mammals, including sheep, rabbits, and hares, have also been observed eating parts of the plant (Butcher 1947).
Diseases and Parasites
Some viruses have been reported to attack belladonna. Belladonna mottle virus, which belongs to the turnip mosaic virus group, is spread by nematodes living in sandy soil (Rita & Animesh 2011). Slugs and garden snails have often been gathered off of Atropa belladonna plants. Larvae of the Chrysomelid beetle Epitrix atropae have been found on the roots of belladonna. The adults of this species have also been found feeding on the leaves. Caterpillars have occasionally been reported as living off of the plant as well. A. belladonna can also be harmed by Phytophthora erythroseptica, which has been found (in Scotland and Holland) to cause a root and crown disease. A large number of fungi (though mostly unidentified) have been observed in belladonna plants in America. One such fungus is the endophytic and pathogenic Diaporthe chailleti (Butcher 1947). Cercospora atropae, a type of leaf spot, is another parasitic fungus of A. belladonna (Butcher 1947).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Atropa belladonna
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Atropa belladonna
Public Records: 14
Specimens with Barcodes: 14
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Atropa belladonna provides many benefits to humans. The main chemical components of the plant include scopolamine (hyoscine) and atropine. In large quantities, these can be harmful (and even lethal) to humans. However, in small, controlled amounts, these compounds can have very beneficial applications. The chemicals from Atropa belladonna can be used to treat extreme inflammation, preventing sepsis, and have strong effects on the nervous system. They are also used in many homeopathic treatments of infections (Cross 2012).
L-atropine was isolated from A. belladonna in the 1830’s, and this discovery allowed scientists to study and understand the effects of neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine, on humans and other mammals (Lee 2007). Atropine is an anticholinergic, meaning that it blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine on the nervous system (Cross 2012). For this reason, it can be administered as an antidote for poisoning by organophosphates or nerve gases because it outcompetes (antagonizes) these chemicals for access to the neuroreceptors. It was used during the 1970’s to reverse the effects of exposure to the cholinergic agonist, physostigmine, in military personnel (Greenblatt & Shader 1973). Related to its effects on the central nervous system, atropine can help in stopping muscle spasms and allowing the return of normal heart rate after exposure to toxins such as nerve gas (Cross 2012). Atropine can also be used to lower blood pressure and lessen the effects of hypertension (Abraham et al. 1981).
Studies with mice have shown that atropine has immunoprotective and gastroprotective effects when behavior alterations occur due to increased levels of stress (Cromwell 1943). Studies using rabbits have shown that atropine can also be used to dilate the pupils. In humans, this practice is more risky, as reversal of the process could take up to 10 days, and excessive use could lead to blindness (Salazar et al. 1976). Nonetheless, the compound has been used in optometry in order to dilate pupils during cataract surgeries and also (though ill-advisedly) to dilate the pupils in order to increase cosmetic appeal. Currently, atropine sulfate drops are a popularly prescribed treatment for amblyopia (an eye condition commonly known as “lazy eye”) (Cross 2012).
Hyoscine has been found to be much safer to use than atropine. It has anesthetic effects and has been used to calm mental patients. It has more recently been discovered to be potentially useful in treating major depressive or anxiety disorders in humans and in regulating mood and behavior. Clinical trials with humans are now underway (Drevets & Furey 2010). Hyoscine is also used in anti-vertigo drugs and other drugs that aid in the prevention of motion sickness (Pyykkö et al. 1985).
Atropa belladonna or Atropa bella-donna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Solanaceae, native to Europe, North Africa, Western Asia, and some parts of Canada and the United States. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include scopolamine and hyoscyamine, which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations, and are also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics. 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; the ancient Romans used it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both were rumored to have used it for murder); and, predating this, it was used to make poison-tipped arrows. The genus name Atropa comes from Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, and the name "bella donna" is derived from Italian and means "beautiful lady" because the herb was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive.
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 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 (see Toxicity) that disperse the seeds in their droppings, even though the seeds contain toxic alkaloids. 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. 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, where it colonizes areas with disturbed soils. 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. The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting. This plant is a sign of water nearby.
Naming and taxonomy
The name Atropa belladonna was published by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. 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, banewort, devil's berries, naughty man's cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry.
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 his birth, the events in his life, and finally his death, with Atropos cutting these threads to mark the last of these. The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian language, meaning "beautiful lady"; originating either from its usage as cosmetic for the face or, more probably, from its usage to increase the pupil size in women.
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably 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.
The active agents in belladonna, atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions. In 2009, A. belladonna berries were mistaken for blueberries by an adult woman; the six berries she ate were documented to result in severe anticholinergic syndrome. The plant's deadly symptoms are caused by atropine's disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system's ability to regulate involuntary activities, such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same as for atropine.
Atropa belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis. However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering harmful effects. In humans, its anticholinergic properties will cause the disruption of cognitive capacities, such as memory and learning.
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 to be attractive and seductive. Belladonna drops act as an antimuscarinic, blocking receptors in the muscles of the eye that constrict pupil size. 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.
Belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, and anti-inflammatory, and to treat menstrual problems, peptic ulcer disease, histaminic reaction, and motion sickness. At least one 19th-century eclectic medicine journal explained how to prepare a belladonna tincture for direct administration to patients.
Belladonna tinctures, decoctions, and powders, as well as alkaloid salt mixtures, are still produced for pharmaceutical use, and these are often standardised at 1037 parts hyoscyamine to 194 parts atropine and 65 parts scopolamine. The alkaloids are compounded with phenobarbital and/or kaolin and pectin for use in various functional gastrointestinal disorders. The tincture, used for identical purposes, remains in most pharmacopoeias, with a similar tincture of Datura stramonium having been in the US Pharmacopoeia at least until the late 1930s. The combination of belladonna and opium, in powder, tincture, or alkaloid form, is particularly useful by mouth or as a suppository for diarrhoea and some forms of visceral pain; it can be made by a compounding pharmacist, and may be available as a manufactured fixed combination product in some countries (e.g., B&O Supprettes). A banana-flavoured liquid (most common trade name: Donnagel PG) was available until 31 December 1992 in the United States.
Scopolamine is used as the hydrobromide salt for GI complaints and motion sickness, and to potentiate the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of opioid analgesics. It was formerly used in a painkiller called "twilight sleep" in childbirth.
Atropine sulphate is used as a mydriatic and cycloplegic for eye examinations. It is also used as an antidote to organophosphate and carbamate poisoning, and is loaded in an autoinjector for use in case of a nerve gas attack. Atropinisation (administration of a sufficient dose to block nerve gas effects) results in 100 percent blockade of the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, and atropine sulphate is the benchmark for measuring the power of anticholinergic drugs.
Hyoscyamine is used as the sulphate or hydrobromide for GI problems and Parkinson's disease. Its side-effect profile is intermediate to those of atropine and scopolamine, and can also be used to combat the toxic effects of organophosphates.
Hyoscyamine was the primary alkaloid in Asthmador, a nonpresciption treatment for the relief of bronchial asthma, until Asthmador was discontinued.
Scientific evidence to recommend the use of A. belladonna in its natural form for any condition is insufficient, although some of its components, in particular l-atropine, which was purified from belladonna in the 1830s, have accepted medical uses. 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.
Belladonna preparations are used in homeopathy as alleged treatments for various conditions. In clinical use and in research trials, the most common preparation is diluted to the 30C level in homeopathic notation. This level of dilution does not contain any of the original plant, although preparations with lesser dilutions that statistically contain trace amounts of the plant are advertised for sale.
Atropa belladonna and related plants, such as jimson weed (Datura stramonium), have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce. However, these hallucinations are most commonly described as very unpleasant, and recreational use is considered extremely dangerous because of the high risk of unintentional fatal overdose. In addition, the central nervous system effects of atropine include memory disruption, which may lead to severe confusion.
The tropane alkaloids of A. belladonna were used as poisons, and early humans made poisonous arrows from the plant. In Ancient Rome, it was used as a poison by Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius on advice of Locusta, a lady specialized in poisons, and Livia, who is rumored to have used it to kill her husband Emperor Augustus.
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.
In the past, witches were believed to use a mixture of belladonna, opium poppy and other plants, typically poisonous (such as monkshood and poison hemlock), in flying ointment, which 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 (to be specific, scopolamine) and opiate alkaloids in the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (to be specific, morphine), which produces a dream-like waking state. This antagonism was known in folk medicine, discussed in eclectic (botanical) medicine formularies, and posited as the explanation of how flying ointments might have actually worked in contemporary writing on witchcraft. 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 that was later modified, and so isolated alkaloids were used instead of plant materials. The belladonna herb was also notable for its unpredictable effects from toxicity.
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Exotic in North America (Kartesz, 1999).
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