Atropa belladonna has a long and rich history, full of people exploiting its poison to kill other people. Humans are charming that way. Over the years, Deadly Nightshade has been used for such noble purposes as poisoning enemy troops (the Ancient Romans were particularly good at this), for torture, for its hallucinogenic properties, and reportedly for witchcraft (apparently they used it in flying ointment - the symptoms of ingesting the toxin felt like flying).

Deadly Nightshade was also used in cosmetics - the sap was used by Italian women to dilate their pupils, which made them appear more attractive.

Medicine has found numerous uses for the Deadly Nightshade toxin. Its ability to dilate pupils is taken advantage of by eye surgeons. It is also used in some anesthetics. The most common use for Deadly Nightshade is in motion sickness medicines and to control other conditions that have muscle spasms as a symptom (like Parkinson's disease). When applied topically, it is also quite effective in reducing pain, as in rheumatism, sciatica, or neuralgia.

                                            © H. Zell 2009

Sometimes, Atropa belladonna gets confused with another plant, Solanum dulcamara, or Bittersweet Nightshade (sometimes called Deadly Nightshade, thus the confusion). They both have purple flowers, but the shapes are quite different. Also, The berries of Solanum dulcamara are bright red, as opposed to the dark black of Atropa belladonna. Both plants are highly toxic, and I wouldn't try to eat either one of them. However, Deadly Nightshade is more toxic than Bittersweet Nightshade. Bittersweet Nightshade's toxin only contains two of the four components that Deadly Nightshade's has - solanine and a compound similar to atropine.
 © H. Zell 2009

Just for fun, scientists debated over what poison could have caused Juliet to go into her death-like state that fooled Romeo into thinking she was actually dead in Shakespeare's classic tragedy. Deadly Nightshade was among the possibilities, especially since the flower is prolific in Europe.


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