By Ina Woolcott
Deadly Nightshade or Belladonna, Atropa Belladonna, and aka dwale, devil’s herb, love apple, sorcerer’s cherry, murderer’s berry, dwaleberry, witch’s berry, devil’s cherry, black cherry, divale, great morel, dwayberry, naughty man’s cherries. It is a well known perennial shrub of the nightshade family Solanaceae). This family of plants contains about 1500 species, sorted under 70 genera to include Jimsonweed, tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, chilli peppers and egg plants. Atropa mandatory mandrake is Belladonnas related species. Deadly Nightshade has leaves and berries that are highly toxic and is native to Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. Having been introduced to North America, it has now spread into the wild by natural regeneration. It is not actually that common in the wild though, as flea beetles assault it, as well as not having a high tolerance for direct sunlight. In locations where it has become naturalised it is most commonly found in moist, shady areas with a limestone rich soil. Its use as a garden plant is not widespread, some consider it a weed.
Germination is not always easy as germination inhibitors are to be found in the seeds. A number of weeks are necessary for germination in completely sterile soil that is warm and moist, not in the usual normal garden conditions. It is not the sturdiest of perennials and is sensitive to being re-planted.
Belladonna is a heavily branching herb having a purplish coloured stem, capable of growing up to 2 metres high. It has dim green leaves and flowers. The leaves are ovoid shaped, up to 20 cm in length and have an oily feel to them and can cause vesicular pustular eruptions if handled without caution. The flowers are trumpet shaped, up to 15cm long, in an unexceptional shade of purple. These flowers bear black, shiny berries that are circa 1cm in diameter, which are sweet, but the majority of their alkaloids are to be found in the seed.
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants to be found in the Western hemisphere. There are children that have been poisoned by ingesting as little as 3 berries. The berries are a great danger to kids as they look enticing and have a somewhat sweet taste. It is possible for an adult to die from eating 1 leaf of this plant! Generally, the root of the plant is the most toxic part, though there are variations form one plant to the next. There are a lot of animals, such as deer, rabbits, pigs, sheep, goat and birds that appear to be able to eat the plant without any ill effects, though dogs and cats are affected. Belladonna poisoning can lead to weakness, lack of coordination, colic and depression in horses, with deaths reported even for small amounts from 0.5 to 5 kg. A lot of reports imply that people have been poisoned by eating animals that have previously consumed Belladonna, though this has not been confirmed officially.
Active constituents of Belladonna are Atropine, d,l-hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and the dangerous apoatropine, which is contained only in the roots. The active alkaloids are deemed anticholinergic substances, producing effects by binding to, and blocking the action of acetylcholine receptors of the peripheral nervous system. This effect is termed muscarinic, and is named after muscarine, which is one of the active constituents of Amanita Muscaria fungi. Different to muscarine, atropine binds to the acetylcholine receptor without activating it, therefore making it an effective antidote to muscarine poisoning.
Tropane alkaloids are found in all parts of the plant. Symptoms of poisoning in humans, include:
* Rapid heartbeat – greater than 100 beats a minute in an adult
* Dilated pupils
* Loss of balance
* Blurred vision
* A feeling of flight
* Feeling like one is suffocating
* Extremely dry throat
* Husky voice
* Paleness followed by a red rash
* Urinary retention
* Seething Pain
* Possible Convulsions or uncontrollable body movements
* A potential memory loss up to several days after the poisoning
It is possible for the skin to completely dry out and shed. In fatal cases the pulse is rapid and them becomes weaker. There is an antidote though – physostigmine or pilocarpine. Most of these sypmtoms are because of the atropines effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. Atropine inhibits the action of acetylcholine (ACh) at the acetylcholine receptor in the nerve synapse, thereby preventing the parasympathetic nervous system from sending out electrical nerve impulses. As the parasympathetic nervous system controls non-volitional/subconscious activities e.g. heart rate, sweating and breathing, when prevented from sending signals, the heartbeat and breathing become extremely irregular.
One will generally be totally unaware that they are under the influence of this plant and lose all touch with conceptual reality, including the ability to distinguish between what is real or not. Deep sleep full of vivid dreams then takes place. Once awake, the subject often come out of the psychosis entirely convinced they had experienced what they had imagined in this ‘normal’, everyday reality.
If taken in small doses, atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine act as sedatives and generally produce pleasing hallucinations and very vivid, erotic dreams. High doses can result in extremely traumatic and terrifying psychotic episodes, as can continual usage. The words tropane and atropine are named after this plant. 10 mg of atropine is regarded a fatal dose, though there has been a reported case of over 1 gram being ingested and the victim surviving. Tolerance is very variable.