In the spirit of the haunted season, I thought I would bring you some lore on the darker side of herbs. Throughout time, the lore of the lowly herb has been recorded in remedies and ointments, however the herb has not always been used for good. In history and literature, from the Bible, to Shakespeare, to accounts of historical battles there has always been a more nefarious side to these seemingly innocent plants. We find many references to poisoning, remedies gone awry, and dark magical intent with the innocent herb so commonly used to bring health…not death.
Common names: Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade
Latin name: Atropa Belladonna
Atropa Belladonna comes from the family of plants known as Solanaceae, the Nightshade family, and is the deadly cousin to plants common in the kitchen garden, such as peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and that tomato we enjoyed all summer. Belladonna has also been called by the names of Deadly Nightshade, Dwale, Devil’s Herb, Murderer’s Berry, Witch’s Berry, and a personal favorite – Naughty Man’s Cherries.
Belladonna is native to Central and Southern Europe, Asia, and North Africa and has been cultivated in England and the United States and naturalized in the eastern United States. The 2-3 foot plant with bell-shaped purple flowers grows in meadows, forests, and ditches. The sweet, deep purple berries of this plant are very attractive, unfortunately, to both children and animals. People have been known to be poisoned from eating birds or rabbits that fed on the berries.
There are many stories telling where the beautiful lady came about her name, the most common being that Italian ladies would place drops of juice from the plant in their eyes to dilate their pupils, giving them beautiful, dark eyes, hence bella donna . Atropos was the name of one of the three fates, who would cut the thread of life, much like the plant will.
John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, warns us of the dangers of Belladonna, saying:
“…Follow my counsel, deale not with the same in any case, and banishe it from your gardens and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly: for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleepe wherein many have died…”Belladonna derives its poisonous properties from the alkaloid atropine. The toxic effects are demonstrated by dryness and constriction of the throat, in small doses, along with blurred vision, vertigo and confusion. A larger dose will cause a more pronounced incidence of these symptoms as well as difficulty swallowing, a slowed pulse, dilated pupils, and double vision. Dry skin and a high fever may also occur. Large toxic doses cause giddiness, staggering, great thirst, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, loss of vision, delirium, and hallucinations. The final symptom is death itself.
These deadly attributes are illustrated in the legends of Belladonna’s use as a poison. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Danish army is taken down when Macbeth invites them to drink. This story is also told of the historical Macbeth in Buchanan’s History of Scotland. The story tells that the unsuspecting Danes drank the cup, which had been infused with Dwale. The herb lulled them to sleep, and then the Scots slipped in and murdered them.
Plutarch describes a graphic account of the armies of Marcus Antonius devouring a plant thought to be Belladonna, then being devoured by it. Marcus Antonius was in a hurry to get back to his bella donna, Cleopatra, so he pushed his troops on toward the Parthenians. In his haste he had not made proper provisions for his troops and they found themselves quite hungry in the province of Atropatene. They searched for vegetables and roots, but found few. Then they came across “an herb that was mortal”. After feasting on this herb, the men went a little insane. They began digging in the dirt and carrying stones from one place to another, senselessly. Finally they began to vomit and then died.
Priests worshipping the Roman Goddess of war, Bellona, would imbibe an infusion of Belladonna before invoking the Goddess, and soldiers would take the drink before going off to war, for the aggressive and warlike spirit it instilled in them.
Belladonna is also one ingredient in the traditional recipe for witches' flying ointment; by the end of the month, we should have all of the ingredients gathered to make our own potion. Bwaa haaa haaa!
Do you have a wonderful weekend planned? I hope you are enjoying the autumn weather in this hemisphere. I'll see you on Monday:)