Halloween Poisonous Plants

Belladonna: Between Witchcraft and Beauty, Medicine and Poison

Dear intrepid readers, welcome to the next chapter in our special Halloween series on poisonous plants. On the program, a plant that oscillates between death and healing, madness and beauty, popularity and mystery: belladonna.

Photo: radimjv

A Plant With Bewitching Charm

Don’t be fooled by the dark beauty of the shiny black berry of the belladonna (Atropa bella-donna). Its leaves, berries and roots contain atropine, a substance that seriously alters the nervous system. Even a small amount can cause hallucinations and convulsions, and death by respiratory paralysis.

Despite the fact that a handful of berries is enough to cause the death of an adult, belladonna has been widely used in the past… and continues to be used today. You see, some garden centers sell belladonna plants for their aesthetic qualities in gardening!

Here’s a real reason to fear this plant in this season of fright: like a ghost, belladonna slips between two full-leaved beauties, seducing with its shy purple flowers and fruits as bright as ink blots.

Are you from Europe? Redouble your fear, for this plant can be found in the wild on your side of the ocean, blending in with the delicious blueberries picked on hikes. What havoc it can wreak under its innocent guise!

Myrtille. Photo: Ryan Hodnett.

Witches of the Middle Ages

Belladonna, as known as deadly nightshade, has a long history as a magical ingredient used by witches in the Middle Ages. They would have learned to master this plant to take advantage of its hallucinatory effects, as well as to concoct potions of death, using it internally or externally. According to historical rumor, they would coat broomsticks with a belladonna-based ointment before riding them, giving them the illusion of flying, or even meeting the devil.

It’s a new way of looking at the classics!

The Renaissance Bella Donna

Belladonna was also used for cosmetic purposes by Renaissance women. Elegant Italian women would apply a few drops of a belladonna infusion to their face near the eyes to dilate their pupils and obtain deep black eyes, often described as “doe eyes”. This appearance had the power to arouse the lust of men. Belladonna’s name derives from this usage, since bella donna means “pretty lady” in Italian.

Photo: Nutschig

In addition to dilating the pupils, the infusion also caused a slight squint, which was considered a beauty feature at the time.

To be honest with you, I’d have loved to have had princess dresses every day, high hairdos, attended balls… But when you delve into historical realities – and their beauty standards – you’re sometimes disappointed. Putting poison in your face? No, thank you!

Belladonna was also used as a poison in those days. As Pierandrea Mattioli, a botanist physician of the time, wrote in 1548, the dose to be used depended on the desired effect: “one drachma of belladonna for slight frivolity, two drachmas for more levity, and three drachmas for prolonged madness, although it could lead to death.”

Witches, bella donnas or botanists,

No one can escape its sinister charm.

But one wrong dose,

And the price is tragedy.

Between belladonna leaf and eternal sleep,

These berries are a mortal destiny.

Modern Medicine

Of course, many poisons, correctly used and dosed, can be of great help in medicine. In the early 19th century, German doctors used belladonna-based preparations to perform eye examinations. Over time, scientists succeeded in isolating certain compounds from belladonna, such as atropine, and these are still used today.

Hallucinatory Belladonna Cupcake

**Since it’s classified as an endangered plant worldwide, I’ve taken the liberty of adapting this recipe by replacing the belladonna with blueberries. What’s more, the original recipe was entrusted to me by a disreputable witch, so… have some blueberries!

For a snack before going trick-or-treating, nothing beats this delicious cupcake! Hallucinations: meet little monsters, princesses, wild animals and dryers (yes, I’ve seen a child costumed as a clothes dryer, I swear!).

Preparation: use the cupcakes or muffins of your choice. Using a ceremonial kitchen tool, dig a hole in the top of your cupcake to remove the equivalent of a tablespoon or two. Fill the hole with a blueberry jam containing whole berries, leaving a generous overflow to give the impression of bubbles rising from a cauldron.

Demonic encounters guaranteed…

Photo: Karolina Grabowska

It Is Wednesday, Isn’t It?

This article is published on a Wednesday. Belladonna is a theme in the Wednesday series. Coincidence? You be the judge! But I’d like to point out that belladonna has a much slower onset of action than the series suggests.

The effects are manifold: nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing and swallowing, as well as hallucinations and anxiety. The victim then calms down and enters a coma. Death is caused by paralysis of the respiratory and cardiac muscles.

I should also mention that some mammals can consume belladonna without harm. Just because a rabbit eats it doesn’t mean it’s a blueberry.

Still, a very good series, Wednesday Addams, by the way!

In this Halloween season, belladonna reminds us that the line between magic and danger can be a fine one. So remember, even if belladonna fascinates with its mystery, it’s best not to play with poison.

Enjoy a safe Halloween, dear readers, and may your celebration be filled with mystery and adventure.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

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