Deadly Nightshade - Belladonna

Deadly Nightshade is not as deadly as has been made out. It has been safely used in herbal medicine for a few thousand years.

The herb and tops contain 0.15-0.6% tropane alkaloids, 0.1-0.3% of which is (-)-hyoscyamine. On drying, this partially converts to its optical isomer, (+)-hyoscyamine (atropine). The root, which is the site of alkaloid synthesis, contains 0.3-0.8% alkaoids. The level of alkaloids in the berries are generally lower, although I don't have any figures. The alkaloid content may vary due to factors such as climate, soil and altitude. It is generally higher in sunny, dry years.

Oral doses of atropine are rapidly absorbed and take effect 45 minutes after administration. The plant extract is absorbed faster than the pure alkaloid due to the presence of flavonoid glycosides. 85-88% of the dose is excreted in 24 hours, 50% as atropine, 50% as metabolites. Some appears in the milk of nursing mother, so using it while breast feeding is a no-no. I haven't got any figures for skin absorbtion. However, it should be slower and less complete, but by how much I have no idea.

The alkaloids are sympatholytic. The initial symptoms are a dry mouth, mydriasis with consequent photophobia, dizziness, hot flushed skin, constipation and difficulty in urination. Increasing the dose slightly raises the heart rate, respiration and temperature. Coordination is also impaired (ataxia). A still higher dose causes delirium and hallucinations, apparently often of a sexual nature. There is a good account of the effect of flying ointment in 'Natural Magic' by Giambattista della Porta, a contemporary of Galileo. Increasing the dose still further produces a deathlike coma, with hallucinations, lasting for up to three days. Toxic doses cause death by respiratory paralysis.

The hallucinations caused by related plants are different, although the alkaloids are the same. Thornapple (Datura stramonium) causes hallucinations of turning into an animal, while those of Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) have been described as being of anger, pain, terror and a feeling of splitting apart. Noone has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation of why this is. However it is possible that it is due to the proportions of the alkaloids to each other in the

species concerned.

The toxic dose of atropine is recorded as being 100 mg. The maximum safe dose for medical use is 600 micrograms or about 200 mg leaf/ 75 mg root. This would almost certainly be starting to cause inebriation but no hallucinations. The dose is calculated by the percentage of total alkaloids calculated as hyoscyamine. The plant should be assayed first to establish its alkaloid content. You can go by rule of thumb and assume the plant contains the maximum of 0.6% alkaloids - but then you can also come unstuck if you have a plant with a higher yield.! The dose also depends on factors such as body weight. Using any tropane alkaloid with antidepressant MAO inhibitors or plants such as St Johns Wort is dangerous! MAO inhibitors block the metabolism of several drugs, including amphetamines, tropane alkaloids and morphine. As a result, toxic symptoms appear at lower doses. In the case of tropane alkaloids this can and will lead to a catastrophic blood pressure rise and bleeding into the brain.

Tolerance builds up when used at high or hallucinogenic levels. Unfortunately, the heart doesn't develop tolerance, so the effects of the larger doses can affect the heart.

OK, that's the guff on the plant. There were several recipes for flying ointment. One medieval recipe used Belladonna, Aconite (Wolfsbane or Monkshood), Hemlock, Cinquefoil, soot and fat. Fat is the base. Soot was probably mainly added for camouflage. If noone saw you, you couldn't be reported to the Church! Do not use Aconite or Hemlock in this recipe!! The toxic dose of aconitine, the active principal of Aconite, is 4 mg. That is, 4 mg will kill you! It is one of the deadliest vegetable poisons going! Wolfsbane was used in Europe as an arrow poison for killing wolves. Aconitine is readily skin absorbed. Picking 11 leaves will give toxic (not fatal) symptoms: raised erratic heart rate, lowered blood pressure, numbness at the site of absorbtion and tingling in the affected nerves. One average sized leaf can kill 20 people. Using Aconite makes this mixture more risky than it otherwise is. It practically guarantees a nasty accident. OK, Belladonna has been used as an antidote to Aconite - but I wouldn't risk it. Cinquefoil was added for its magical properties and has no physiological effect in this use.

Now, as to whether it's useful: probably not. There are risks with any drug. Personally, I do not like mixing magic and drugs. You have very little control over a drug induced state and no control as to its duration. You have to wait for the drug to clear before you can come down. Anyway, anything a drug can do, the mind can eventually be trained to do. It just takes longer. OK, I know that shaman in many cultures use drugs - but generally only at need. They have a great respect for such plants and a full knowledge of the risks. Even so, accidents still occur.

Belladonna was the 'Hazels-of-Wisdom' that surrounded the sacred well in Irish legend. It is connected with the Hag, the Dark Woman of Knowledge, who could either teach you or destroy you - a good description of the risks! The colour of the berries is her colour, the forbidden colour of the Celts, huath, meaning terrible or terror. This, by the way, is also the origin of Hawthorn, which is also connected with her. In the Irish tales, Suibhne was probably out of his head on Belladonna.

Many animals can eat Belladonna with impunity eg: rabbits. The alkaloid accumulates in their flesh. If a man or woman now eats the animal, they will have hallucinations. In a prescientific age, this would be attributed to it being a magical animal cf: The Salmon of Wisdom.

It was predominately the warriors in Celtic society who used Belladonna to obtain knowledge. Not surprising. They were after an edge in battle. Give a warrior a choice between spending 21 years with a druid to learn what he knows or eating that plant over there - 'it's dangerous, it might kill you, but if it doesn't you'll learn what you need to know' -well, which do you think a warrior would choose? The druids had more refined methods available. This was just a shortcut.

By the way, the berries are the safest part of the plant. 2-3 berries have been recorded as being relatively safe for an adult, although they will have hallucinations and may need hospitalisation. Yes, some people have tried it recreationally! 1-2 berries are fatal to a child.

Do NOT use Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) as an antidote to Belladonna poisoning. I have seen it recommended. OK, so muscarine is an effective antidote to tropane alkaloid poisoning. The trouble is that atropine potentiates ibotenic acid, the compound responsible for Fly Agaric being hallucinogenic. The results can be dire!! A fungus containg only muscarine, such as the Clitocybe species, should be used instead. Belladonna is also an effective antidote to muscarine poisoning

By the way, for those who wonder what use Wolfsbane has, it gives your defensive house wards real teeth. The stronger the wards basically are, the more teeth it'll give them. I had need of this recently. If you do pick any Wolfsbane, use rubber gloves. Do not get the leaves anywhere near food preparation. Monkshood is nearly as toxic, but its not useful in this respect.

Kevin Jones