Botanical Name: Hyoscyamus niger.
Other Common Names: Hogbean, Schwarzes Bilsenkraut (German), jusquiame (French), veleño negro (Spanish), villrot (Norvegian), bolmört (Swedish).
Habitat: The plant is probably endemic to the Mediterranean countries and western Asia, but is now widespread in many parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
The species has been introduced and naturalized in North America, Brazil, Australia and many other countries.
Plant Description: Henbane is either annual or biennial plant that belongs to the Solanaceae family also known as the nightshade family. The plant can grow up to 25-100 cm tall. It has bright green, hairy leaves that are oval or elongated with toothed edges.
Biennial plants bloom in May and June, while annual plants often bloom from July to September. The yellow flowers sit in long, one-sided tassels and a single plant can produce up to 8,000 seeds.
All parts of the herb are extremely toxic.
Plant Parts Used: It is primarily the leaves that are used in herbal medicine, but the seeds have also to some extent been used. The leaves are collected from the flowering plants.
Gloves should be worn during collection because of the toxicity of the herb.
The leaves of both the annual and biennial plant can be used, but leaves of biennial plants are considered to be superior.
The seeds are collected in August right after they have become mature. They have the same medicinal properties as the leaves but stronger.
Therapeutic Uses, Benefits and Claims of Henbane
Active Ingredient and Substances: The main active constituents of henbane are hyoscyamine (main ingredient), scopolamine and atropine, all highly toxic tropane alkaloids.
Hyoscyamine and hyoscine are also found in other members of nightshade family such as jimsonweed (Datura stamonium) and belladonna (Atropa bella-donna).
Other substances that are found in the plant are flavonoids, tannins, amines, albumin, calcium, and potassium nitrate.
Henbane in Folklore
Henbane has been used as a medicine since ancient times and had a strong reputation as a magical herb that was for instance used in love potions and to induce hallucinations.
In medieval times the herb was popular as a sleep aid and in larger doses used as a deadly poison, often an assassin’s favorite.
The toxic alkaloids in henbane can easily be absorbed through the skin, and the herb was one of the main ingredients of the infamous “witches flying ointment”. The ointment was rubbed onto broomsticks so the toxins would be absorbed through the thin skin of the rectum and vagina.
The intoxicating effects often experienced by henbane poisoning starts with a certain floating feeling which might have given rise to the stories and legends of witches flying on broomsticks.
The herb can cause hallucinations and very vivid dreams, so strong that people sometimes could not distinguish reality from illusion after using the plant.
The main healing properties of the herb are due to the sedative, analgesic and antispasmodic effect the substance hyoscyamine. Henbane was used specifically for pain in the urinary tract, especially in the case of kidney stones.
The sedative and antispasmodic effect makes it a valuable remedy for Parkinson’s disease, where it relieves tremors and stiffness in the early stages of the disease.
The herb has also been used for a toothache and nervous disorders such as mania and hysteria.
The herb has been used as an herbal remedy for bronchitis because of its cough suppressant effect and the ability to clear the breathing passages from secretions.
At one time the dried leaves of henbane were smoked as a treatment for asthma in the same manner as belladonna (Atropa bella-donna) and jimsonweed (Datura Stramonium).
In modern medicine the substance hyocin is used to treat seasickness and as a calming agent in patients preparing for surgery.
Therapeutic oil can be made by allowing the crushed dry leaves of the plant to be soaked in alcohol, mixed with olive oil and then heated in a double boiler so that the alcohol will evaporate.
The oil can be used externally to treat earache, or applied to the skin to relieve pain from neuralgia, sciatica, arthritis, and rheumatic conditions.
Dosage and Administration
In the case of henbane the line between poison and remedy is very thin so it should not be used for self-medication.
Any treatment using the herb or isolated alkaloids from it should only be undertaken by skilled healthcare professionals.
Side Effects and Possible Interactions of Henbane
Henbane is a dangerous and highly poisonous plant and it should never be used by pregnant or lactating women and children.
It can cause dizziness, nausea, dry mucous membranes in the mouth, difficulty in swallowing, fever, hallucinations (often with erotic content), rapid pulse and respiration, increasing blood pressure, seizures, numbness and an urge to rest and sleep.
In severe cases the herb can be deadly, causing cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis.
Barker, Julian: The Medicinal Flora of Britain & Northwestern Europe. Kent, Winter Press 2001
Williamson, Elisabeth M.: Potter’s Herbal Cyclopaedia. Essex, Saffron Walden 2003.
Bown, Deni: The Royal Horticultural Society New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London, Dorling Kindersley 2002.
van Wyk, Ben-Erik & Michael Wink: Medicinal Plants of the World. Portland, Oregon, Timber Press 2004.
Príhoda, Antonín, Ladislav Urban & Vera Nicová: The Healing Powers of Nature. Leicester, Blitz Editions 1998.
Stary, Frantisek & Zdenek Berger: Poisonous Plants. Leicester, Magna Books 1995.
Stuart, Malcolm: The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism. London, Orbis Publishing 1979.
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