Thursday, August 9, 2012

The dark lore of Deadly Nightshade

Atropa belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, is native to Europe. Drawing from 1887 edition of "Kohler's Medicinal Plants."

“Hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet and mad as a hen.”

This centuries-old text describes symptoms that can be caused by Atropa belladonna, more commonly known as Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade. The beautiful, but highly toxic, plant “is very interesting in that it has this dark lore associated with witches,” says Kristen Cross, an Emory junior majoring in biology and environmental studies.

Cross recently gave a presentation on Deadly Nightshade, as part of Emory’s Botanical Medicine and Health class taught by enthnobotanist Cassandra Quave. Click here to watch a video of her talk.

Kurt Stuber/Wikipedia Commons
Atropine and hyoscine are the chemicals that make the plant toxic, as well as giving it potent medicinal and intoxicating effects. Consumption of only a few berries from the Deadly Nightshade can be lethal.

Women mixed Deadly Nightshade and other plants together to make “flying ointments,” Cross says. “They would get together at night and have these rituals where they would experience sensations of flying and euphoria.”

Women in Venice used drops made from Deadly Nightshade to make their pupils dilate and increase the allure of their eyes. It was also used in ocular surgery during the 1800s to make it easier to remove cataracts.

Today, extracts from Deadly Nightshade are showing promise for treatment of depression and nausea, among other benefits. The plant “is on the dangerous border of very poisonous and very useful,” Cross notes.

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