Belladonna, the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

Belladonna, or the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), is a member of the Solanaceae family. The genus name Atropa is derived from the name for the Greek goddess of fate, Atropos, who possessed absolute power over life and death.

© DHU

In the 16th century, Italian women used the juice from the berries as eyedrops to dilate their pupils to make them appear seductive. Hence the term bella donna, or beautiful woman. Belladonna was one of the first homeopathic remedies developed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1799. He observed similarities in the symptoms between belladonna poisoning and scarlet fever.

At worst, death by respiratory paralysis can result from eating the sweet-sour, cherry-like fruits (berries) of the deadly nightshade that grows in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The component responsible for this effect is atropine, an agent that plays an important role in pharmaceutics and can be found in a variety of cardiac drugs. Atropine is also used to induce anaesthesia and to dilate the pupils for certain eye tests and treatments. The structure of the fruit is similar to a tomato – albeit much smaller, and dark in colour due to the content of anthocyanins (water-soluble plant pigments). Belladonna thrives in soil that is rich in humus and slightly chalky. It grows to a height of about 150 centimetres, flowering from June through to August and producing black, cherry-like berries thereafter.

Typical signs of intoxication from these berries are dilated pupils; dry, hot and reddened skin; dry oral mucosa; rapid heartbeat (pulse); restlessness; fits of temper; delirium; loss of consciousness. In accordance with the homeopathic principle of similarity, Hahnemann recognised the possible uses for belladonna in such instances, transforming it into one of the most well-known and most important remedies with a very broad spectrum of effect. This was quite unusual since, after all, indications are primarily determined from homeopathic drug provings in healthy humans.

Deadly nightshade has been used since ancient times as a medicine, including as a painkiller. In the 19th century, the root and herbal extracts were used to treat jaundice, dropsy, whooping cough, neuropathies, scarlet fever and epilepsy. For homeopathic purposes, the whole, fresh plants including the roots are harvested at the end of the flowering season. The poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the “Erl King” is a tale of belladonna fever and the failure of a father to take his child, who is experiencing extremely characteristic psychic phenomena, seriously.