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Infamous and contradictory, belladonna is weedy yet somehow beautiful, tempting even, with shiny eggplant-purple-black berries. This deadly poisonous herb is intriguingly the antidote to several highly toxic substances. Throughout history it has played a part in witchcraft and the assassin's tool kit. It has been used as a beauty aid and for potent medicines. And, finally, in horticulture, belladonna finds glory as a garden specimen, yet grows wild in wastelands and vacant lots. Rare are plants with such split personalities.

Atropa belladonna, as it is known in scientific terms, is literally defined by its ability to kill. The plant's namesake, Atropos, was one of three fate goddesses in Greek mythology--the one with the power to cut the threads of life. Common names include deadly nightshade, dwale, devil's berry, and poison cherry. Linnaeus was the first to use the specific name "belladonna," meaning "beautiful woman" in Italian. He observed that extracts from the berries were employed by upper class Italian women to dilate their pupils, achieving a look of wide-eyed beauty. The pupil dilating action of belladonna berries is attributed to a high concentration of the alkaloid atropine, and is used today in opthamology.

Belladonna has a chemical profile similar to other important witching herbs, specifically datura, henbane and mandrake. Each contains atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine; the latter implicated in hallucinogenic activities associated with witchcraft. All parts of the plant contain alkaloids, but nightshade's berries and roots are most potent. Belladonna poisoning can include dream-like delirium, accompanied by a sensation of flying through the air. It is not by coincidence that witches are depicted using broom sticks to soar about; belladonna was mixed with animal fat to aid absorption through the skin and rubbed onto broomsticks. It is commonly reported that events occurring during belladonna intoxication/poisoning cannot be remembered by the participant.

Commercial belladonna farms in Eastern Europe and the United States supply the pharmaceutical industry. Wild harvested material is also collected in Southern Europe. (A. belladonna is native to Europe and Asia.) Belladonna is cultivated as a garden plant in North America, although mail order companies are likely to be the only source of either seeds or plants for prairie gardeners.

Deadly nightshade is a Zone 3 perennial that can grow in full sun to partial shade, with the most potent alkaloids occurring in sunnier plantings. Seeds are difficult to germinate, requiring cold storage followed by patience--they can take up to a year to sprout. Established plants yield easily rooted cuttings. Purplish-brown flowers appear in June and last through September, with berries maturing over the summer months.

The bruised foliage on belladonna has a repulsive aroma, while the berries are sweet and compelling in flavour. As few as one to five berries can kill, so CAUTION and education are in order when choosing to grow this mystical plant. There is something exciting about growing plants with such power. More and more gardeners are talking about the energy and magic of their garden spaces, and sacred herbs like belladonna connect us to important passages in human history and development. With respect and reverence, belladonna can find a special place in the garden.

David Hanson is the owner/operator of Sage Garden Herbs, a specialty herb nursery in Winnipeg, MB. He just completed a term as Vice President of the Herb Society of Manitoba, and is still involved with the Society. David's business runs great workshops on herbs. Visit:
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Title Annotation:herbs, research
Author:Hanson, David
Publication:Prairie Garden
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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