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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).