An online friend was inquiring into Belladonna last week and I told her I’d dig into my files to see what I could come up with. While I remembered some of what I found, I didn’t remember other information and found it so interesting, I thought I’d share it with ‘the world’.
Belladonna Atropa belladonna is native to central and southern Europe and because of cultivation, is naturalized in both England and the US. It likes calciferous soil (read: calcium/lime/chalk) and to be in partial shade. It grows large enough to probably be considered a shrub. It is indeed a pretty plant, producing purple bell-shaped flowers and black berries … mine is a varietal that produces lovely yellow flowers and pale yellow fruit. Belladonna is a member of the same family as eggplants & tomatoes (the Nightshade family) and I can tell you from personal experience, is subject to the same bug-munching.
As many people know, the name ‘Belladonna’ is from the Italian for ‘Pretty Lady’ and probably derives from a legendary practice by Italian ladies of using the juice of Belladonna berries to dilate their pupils. Apparently, this was considered attractive at some point. I consider it painful … a synthetic derivative of Belladonna is still used to dilate pupils for ophthalmological exams and I find light of any kind extremely irritating for several hours on an annual basis … and they didn’t even have sunglasses ‘way back when!
(Another possible derivative for Belladonna is said to come from priests drinking an infusion of this herb and then calling on the aid of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. Although it’s a narcotic it’s also a sedative. Dreaming of fighting?)
The Atropa is derived from the Greek Atropos, one of the three Fates, who held the scissors that could cut the thread of life.
Most people also know that another name for Belladonna is ‘Deadly Nightshade’. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous – a fact which has been known for centuries. It was used by early humans to tip their arrows; it’s said that Agrippina the Younger, wife of Emperor Claudius used it to poison rivals, and by Livia to kill her husband, Emperor Augustus.
That said, it also has its medicinal uses. It was listed in the US Pharmacopia even in the late 1930’s and the drug Atropine (derived from Belladonna) was in such great demand that prices skyrocketed during World War I. It’s been used internally for a variety of conditions including motion sickness and what we now call irritable bowel syndrome; as an ingredient in cigarettes for asthma; and as a poultice for skin cancer. I wouldn’t recommend you try it at home. The dosage has to be exact or a fatal overdose is quite possible.
Belladonna was also an ingredient in ‘flying ointments’ supposedly used by witches to ‘fly’ to their gatherings. You won’t take wing but you’ll think you do. The scopolamine content, while a sedative (and still used for motion sickness) can be quite hallucenogenic.
Contrary to popular belief, Belladonna is not illegal in the United States. As a matter of fact, you can still get preparations not only in homeopathic dosages but also as a prescription from compounding pharmacists. (You’ll have to interview pharmacists. Most won’t carry it and will either question your doctor’s sanity or attempt to fill with the synthetic derivatives.) There is an exception here: Louisiana has outlawed Belladonna preparations meant to for human consumption. You can still grow it as an ‘ornamental’, though. Belladonna was and is an approved herb from the German Commission E, used for spasms and colic-like pain in the GI tract and bile ducts. It has not yet, however, been approved by the European Medicines Agency and since their directive takes effect April 1 of this year …
There is another plant that goes by the common name of ‘Deadly Nightshade’. That is Solanum nigrum or Black Nightshade, and is a distant relative of Belladonna. This appears to be native to the US as its use by many tribes is documented. The Cherokee have used an infusion of the leaves and stem “if lonesome because of death in family”. Hmmm … narcotic and sedative. It would probably make you forget your troubles for awhile.
While many in the magical community use Belladonna to produce visions or as an aid in astral travel (some make an infusion of the leaves, some smoke it), I’m not as confident in my abilities to produce a non-toxic preparation when I don’t know the exact chemical composition of my plant, so I don’t use it on myself. But, since a fast heartbeat is generally associated with anxiety, it makes a wonderful addition to spells meant to induce anxiety in the target!