Belladonna also know by the name Night Shade (Atropa bella-donna) is a perennial herbaceous plant. It is a 50-150 cm tall and very toxic. The stem is hairy and the leaves are ovate to elliptic. Flowering takes place in July to September.
The flowers are purple with green tinges. The fruits are round, black and glistening berries, 1 to 2 inches in diameter. The plant has a vigorous rootstock and a widespread and deep root system.
Belladonna poisoning is very serious as it is one of the few truly deadly poisonous plants found in nature. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids such as Atropine.
The plant also contains Scopolamine, Apoatropin, Belladonnin and Scopoletin. The consumption of two to five berries by a human adult is probably lethal. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part and ingestion of one leaf of the herb can cause death.
If the plant is ingested it can cause facial flushing, dry mucous membranes, increased heart rate, intoxication, hallucinations, convulsions and respiratory paralysis. Atropine disrupts the body’s ability to regulate sweating, breathing, and heart rate. The antidote for Atropine belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine.
The genus name Atropa is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of fate who weaves and cuts the threads of life. In ancient Rome, it was used as a poison and for cosmetic reasons, women used the extract of the plant as a beauty remedy to expand the pupils of the eye. This application is the reason for the Latin name “bella-donna meaning beautiful lady.
The plant has been used as an anesthetic for surgery and extracts from the roots was used as a remedy for a malignant cough or a whooping-cough. Extracts of the plant are still used in the pharmaceutical industry.
Belladonna was grown in European monastery gardens and is mention in many ancient medical books as a medicinal herb of great power.