In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Belladonna has such a lovely name, that it comes as a surprise to the origins of the plant. Typically, the berries of the Belladonna plant are consumed by animals, who scatter the seeds in their droppings. Oddly enough, though potentially fatal to humans, many animals can eat, and pass belladonna berries with no difficulty.
Officially called atropa belladonnna, and also known as deadly nightshade, the plant is a perennial, though not as long lived as many perennials.The name belladonna comes from the Italian word denoting a beautiful woman, possibly related to a belladonna based tincture used in Venice to dilate their pupils, which was thought to make them more attractive.
The compound in belladonna which dilates the pupils, atropine, is only one of several toxic and psychoactive ingredients. All parts of the plant are capable of killing or forever reducing the mental capacities in humans, but it’s the shiny black berries which are most attractive to animals and small children, usually resulting in narcosis, paralysis and ultimately, death. Even slight contact with this charming plant can cause severe skin issues, so when handling, always wear gloves.
Belladonna has an illustrious career as a poison, with references stretching back to when the Roman emperor Claudius was believed to have been poisoned with it, back in 68 AD. Additionally, it’s believe that the Scots once knocked off a Danish army by leaving them tribute of barrels of beer, laced with deadly nightshade.
Nightshade has also been thought to be one of the main ingredients of witch’s flying potions, along with, monkshood and other toxic plants. A belladonna trip isn’t always fatal, and it’s believed that in the past people had a stronger tolerance to the plant, allowing them to explore its psychoactive uses. Legends attribute the results of the Gaelic herb of courage to belladonna, which caused their warriors to totally let go in battle.
Today belladonna is used in the pharmaceutical industry, as it has been for ages by cunning women throughout Europe for everything from muscle relaxers, pain relievers, menstrual problems and stomach ailments.
Belladonna is a European plant, and not necessarily ideal for growing in North America, though it can be done. The difficult bit is germinating. Ideally you’ll sew your seeds on the Winter Solstice, and the following spring if you’re lucky, and the weather gods cooperate, you should have plants in the spring.
Last year’s plants might still hang on, depending on how mild your winter is. In the second year, leaves are smaller and the plant tends to grow taller, up to six foot. Since animals do eat the berries which contain the seeds, if you want to save seeds for next year, it’s best to pick the berries.
Belladonna likes partly shady to shady areas, and it’s possible to grow indoors, though in a pot it likely stays smaller. For best results, treat your soil whether indoors or out with lime, and fertilize from time to time.