Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna): Your Complete Guide

Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade, has a long, colorful history. This perennial herb has long been used (and misused) for its medicinal, toxic, and hallucinogenic properties. All parts of the plant contain potent alkaloids, which cause intoxication, delirium, and even death. With a name that nods to the three Fates in Greek mythology and the Italian phrase for “beautiful lady,” belladonna plays a role in multiple cultural and medical traditions and folklore. In this guide, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about Deadly Nightshade’s meaning and symbolism, its history and origins, uses and toxicity, and cultural significance worldwide.

Ultimate Guide to Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

About Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna):

Family, Genus, and Taxonomy

Deadly nightshade belongs to the Atropa genus. Also commonly known as dwale, death cherries, and devil’s berries, belladonna is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family.

Solanaceae contains about 2,700 species across 98 genera. This family also includes plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, eggplants, and peppers.

Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances

Belladonna is a perennial herb. It has long, thin branches with red sap and simple, alternate foliage.

Deadly nightshade blooms with drooping, tubular blossoms. The plant’s purple flowers are followed by shiny black berries.

History & Origins

Deadly nightshade is endemic in regions stretching from southern and central Europe, through the Middle East and parts of Asia. Thanks to its long use in folk medicine and as a cosmetic ingredient, it’s been cultivated and spread for thousands of years. Today, belladonna is naturalized in many parts of the world, from North America through the Middle East.

Etymological Meanings

Purple flower of a deadly nightshade plant

Belladonna’s scientific name stems to 1753, when Linnaeus first formally named the plant with a nod to its toxic nature, as well as its cultural roles. Atropa comes from the Greek myth of the Three Fates, who govern the thread of the human lifespan. Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures the length, and Atropos — which means “inexorable” or “inflexible” — severs the thread of life.

“Belladonna” comes from the Italian phrase for “beautiful woman.” During the 16th century, Italian courtesans would use drops of deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils and enhance their beauty.

Native Range

A. belladonna is native to Eurasia. It’s found in Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe, North Africa, and regions of the Middle East, including the Caucuses, Iran, and Turkey.

In a temperate climate, deadly nightshade blooms from June to September.

How Poisonous is Deadly Nightshade? 

Deadly nightshade is highly toxic to humans, dogs, cats, and some livestock. All parts of the plant are poisonous; simply touching the plant can cause skin irritation.

Belladonna contains the tropane alkaloids atropine, hyocyamine, and scopolamine. These compounds affect the functioning of the body’s nervous system, causing intoxication, hallucination, delirium, and even death. Roots contain the highest concentration of alkaloids.

Ingesting even small amounts of the plant can be fatal for humans or animals. Even eating honey that contains atropine can cause health problems.

Belladonna berries are especially dangerous, as they are attractive, have a sweet taste, and are easily mistaken for other fruits. Eating just a few berries can sicken or kill a child.

Uses of Deadly Nightshade Flowers

Uses of Deadly Nightshade Flowers

Despite its toxic nature, deadly nightshade has a long history of medicinal use. Early herbalists believed that witches used belladonna to facilitate flight, and used the plant in pain-relieving salves.

In 1500s Europe, healers used deadly nightshade (then called “dwale”) to put patients to sleep while performing surgeries and cauterizations. Leaves were soaked in wine vinegar and placed on the patients’ heads.

Today, modern medicine utilizes the alkaloids found in belladonna. When used by a qualified practitioner, A. belldonna may be used to treat:

  • Motion sickness
  • Tremor associated with Parkinson’s disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Spastic colon
  • Ulcers
  • Diverticulitis
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Excessive urination
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Teething pain
  • Gout
  • Inflammation
  • Joint pain
  • Earache

Eye doctors may use belladonna drops to aid in pupil dilation for exams. It’s also been used as an antidote for poison.

Meaning & Symbolism

A small purple flower from a deadly nightshade plant

In the language of flowers, the deadly nightshade’s purple flowers symbolized silence or falsehood. The Victorians might interpret a gift of belladonna as a warning, or as a symbol of death.

Some even used the belladonna flower as a meditation on the nature of good and evil. While the deadly nightshade is indeed deadly, other plants in the nightshade (Solaraceae) family, such as potatoes, are benign food sources. This sets up an easy metaphor to contemplate good and evil.

Cultural Significance

A. belladonna has a long, colorful, and occasionally gruesome history. It’s long been used as a weapon and a poison. Early humans made poison from belladonna and applied it to the tips of their arrows.

Several Roman emperors met their demise thanks to this plant. The wives of Augustus and Claudius used atropine to kill their husbands. Roman armies used belladonna to contaminate their foes’ food stores.

The Romans weren’t the only ones to use belladonna against their enemies. Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth that the Scottish army used belladonna to knock out the Danish army, then murdered them as they slept.

The plant was associated with witchcraft and the devil in medieval Europe, hence the name “devil’s cherries.” But belladonna became linked to beauty during the Renaissance, as Venetian women would drop plant extracts in their eyes to dilate their pupils. Carpathian women would carry a nightshade root on their heads to enhance their attractiveness.

Atropine was used as an antidote to poisonous gas in World War II. Atropine often figures in novels and movies about assassins and spy craft.

Wrapping Up

Deadly nightshade has long played a role in human history, whether for its medicinal uses or as a deadly toxin. Named for both the Greek Fates and feminine beauty, A. belladonna is both lovely and dangerous. Given the plant’s unique cultural role, it’s easy to see why the language of flowers incorporated deadly nightshade as a symbol of silence, falsehood and warning.

Contributing Editor | | Full Bio

Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.

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