A Magical Herbalism Lesson About Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade)
It is of a cold nature; in some it causeth sleep; in others madness, and, shortly after, death. – Culpeper’s Complete Herbal
Belladonna, also known to us as deadly nightshade, is one of those exotic, fascinating plants that fascinate plants that gets attention. You’ll find it peppered throughout legends and myths wherever there are Witches and poisoners. Even though it’s poisonous, belladonna is still found in many gardens, even on the side of roads or in fields near playgrounds, and packaged in herbal shops. It belongs to a large family of plants known as Solanaceae; you may be surprised to find out that a lot of our favorite garden veggies -- peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes -- belong to this family.
Belladonna - Deadly Nightshade
Belladonna Growers: Proceed With Caution!
I hesitated before adding belladonna to my magical herbalism series. I don’t want to encourage people to grow things that could hurt someone. Even today there are still reports of people dying because they accidentally ingest the berries, or people are being admitted to the hospital because they play with the plant and it causes psychosis, skin irritations and other conditions related to coming into contact with belladonna.
I ultimately decided to include it because, first of all, I realize that most people enjoy just learning about plants like these with no intent to ever grow them or use them. And secondly, there’s nothing inherently bad about any plant. I think of it like heavy machinery or wild animals—it’s not for someone to casually come along and jump into out of curiosity.
Those who choose to grow or use belladonna should not do so casually, without education and forethought. You should not grow Belladonna if you are:
- New to herbs and herbalism
- Have children or pets
- If your plants would be easily accessible to neighbors, children & local pets
- If you are careless about labeling and storing your herbs
A serious, responsible student of herbalism, however, can enjoy working with this plant if precautions are taken.
Details About Belladonna
Belladonna, Bella Donna, Deadly Nightshade, Devil's Herb, Devil's Cherries, , Devil's Berries, Sorcerer's Cherry, Witches Berry, Fair Lady, Banewort, Circaeon, Poison blackberries, Suchi, Buton Noir, Cerise du diable, Cerise Enragee, Divale, Dwale, Dwayberry, Great Morel, Naught Man's Cherries
USDA hardiness zones:
6 - 9
This is NOT Belladonna
WARNING: Belladonna can be absorbed through the skin or through very small cuts! Handle with care, and with gloves!
If you live in the right environment, you should know belladonna is a weedy plant that you won’t have a lot of trouble growing— it prefers poor soil quality on the chalky side that drains well and thrives even with neglect in the right environment. It likes partial shade or dappled light.
It’s not generally invasive, however it may be necessary to pull plants to keep your plot contained. Growing in containers is a good idea.
They can be started by seed or by cuttings (but be careful when handling cuttings).
Some safety tips for deciding where to put your Belladonna:
- Do not grow it near edible plants and berries
- Do not grow it where children or pets go (it might be something better to put off if you do have young children or pets)
- If you do have pets and want to grow it, put a fence around it to keep your pets out
- Do not grow it against fences where some branches might creep through into an unsuspecting neighbor’s yard
- Do not grow it on parts of your property where unsuspecting passers-by with children or pets might come across it
- Make sure to label it with multiple plant markers and warning signs
Please Take Warnings Seriously
This plant can cause everything from serious skin pain to blindness to congestive heart failure. Three berries can kill a child!
Culinary and Craft Uses of Belladonna
Here I would normally talk about some common uses of the herb in question, but there simply are no common uses for belladonna other than to poison someone. Seriously-- entire armies have been taken down by belladonna. Some unfortunate troops in ancient Rome running low on food mistook them for edible berries, one Germanic army gave it to their enemy in a 'peace offering' drink, and others have used it for poison-tipped arrows.
Every part of this plant is poison. Even touching the plant can absorb poisons into your skin. Therefore, unless an enemy army is knocking on your door, no part of this plant should ever be used in the kitchen or in crafts.
Belladonna should be used strictly (and carefully) as ornamentals or curious specimens in the garden. Keep it far from the kitchen.
Medicinal Uses of Belladonna
WARNING! Due to the toxic nature of this plant, it should never be used by home gardeners or in herbal remedies for any reason. For educational purposes only, the following gives information how this plant has been used medicinally.
According to WebMD, the way belladonna works is that it has chemicals that block nervous system functions. Belladonna was in the past used in small doses as a sedative, to ease bronchial spasms and as a cold and allergy remedy. It's found in remedies for ointments used for joint pain, sciatica and nerve pain. It's been used to control excessive sweating and been found in hemorrhoid suppositories. It's currently being explored in its potential for treating Parkinson’s, nerve problems and some other conditions.
The medicinal biochemical in belladonna is known as atropine. This tropane alkaloid is extracted from belladonna and a few other plants in the Solanaceae family. According to the World Health Organization it's an important ingredient in many pharmaceuticals. It's used in anesthesia to decrease mucous secretions and keep the heart pumping normally.
Atropine is used as a poison treatment because it can block or reverse some of the more adverse effects of certain medicines and pesticides. It's ironic how nature works in letting us derive a poison antidote from a highly poisonous plant.
It's also used medicines to dilate the pupils. In fact, this particular use may be how the plant got its name belladonna, which means “beautiful woman” – young ladies of ancient Rome would use it to dilate the pupils to make their eyes alluring and bewitching. This is not without its dangers. In one recent account I read about of a couple of single young girls who did this, one of them went temporarily blind.
AGAIN, this plant is far too DEADLY to experiment with in home remedies. It can cause everything from serious skin pain to blindness to congestive heart failure. Three berries can kill a child! So leave the atropine to the medical specialists and avoid herbal remedies with this plant altogether.
Cutting Life Short
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Magical Uses of Belladonna
Warning! Due to the toxic nature of this plant, it’s not recommended for magic and spell crafting. This is for informational purposes only; remember that almost every herb can be substituted in spells, including belladonna.
The name “Atropa” is from “Atropos”, one of the Greek Fates. It is she who would cut the thread when it was time to end a man’s life.
Because of its toxic nature, belladonna has been used in many death potions, hexes and curses. It's closely associated with the underworld, and used to consecrate and charge tools used to commune with spirits, or in incenses to attract the dead (never burn belladonna indoors and never directly inhale-- in fact, it's best to skip it and use a safer alternative).
Belladonna was also occasionally found in beauty spells and potions. There's a legend from the Middle Ages that says the plant was actually an enchanted being and on certain nights it would transform into a beautiful woman who would then lure men to their deaths.
The most well-known use by far, however, is its use as an ingredient in so-called ‘flying ointments’. Folklore tells us these ointments were used by Witches to fly on sticks (or more modernly, broomsticks); however, in reality it is suspected that these ointments were used by ancient shamans and Witches to induce a trance state and astral projection-- a whole different type of 'flying'.
Some say that it was applied vaginally by use of a broomstick handle-- though I question that claim. First because witches weren't even associated with brooms (look at all the paintings and sketches pre-18th century; they're on sticks, not brooms). Second, because it just sounds like an awkward way to apply a lotion.
A lot of these flying ointment recipes have survived until today, with other poisons such as datura and henbane. I recommend you do not use them as these plants can make you permanently mad (if they don't kill you first). There are much safer alternatives to promote astral projection.
In Christian folklore, the devil loved belladonna so much he would guard it most of the year. The only safe time to harvest or kill the plant without enduring his wrath was on May Eve, when he was called away for the 'witches sabbats'.
By some accounts, belladonna was sacred to Bellona, the Roman Goddess of war. This may be another possible root of the plant’s name. Priests of Bellona would drink a belladonna infusion before prayers and meditations-- which no doubt gave them a number of visions (mostly hallucinations, I’m guessing).
By other accounts, it was sacred to Circe, an enchantress or (in some depictions) a Goddess of magic, who was widely known for her expertise with potions and herbs. She was known for using her herbs to transform people who crossed her into animals. If you've read the Odyssey of Homer, the crew comes across Circe's island in their travels. She feeds them but it's laced with potions that turns them into swine.
Belladonna is certainly an exciting plant to learn about, or even to get to see in person, for those who enjoy herbal magic, lore and medicine. But as my final parting words, leave the actual cultivation and uses to the experts.
Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses
A Modern Herball -- Mrs. M. Grieve (1931)
Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham
Belladonna -- WebMD
Atropa belladonna -- Plants for a Future
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright