Macbeth of Scotland

Specimen of the day – Atropa belladonna

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by Jemma

Atropa belladonna, commonly called deadly nightshade, is a herbaceous perennial (which means it lives for over 2 years and its stems die down back to the soil level at the end of the growing season) in the Solanceae family. This flowering plant produces shiny black berries that are extremely toxic. There is also a second version, Atropa belladonna var. lutea, which produces pale-yellow fruit rather than the iconic black berries.

Belladonna flowers and berries. Image adapted from: https://auntiedogmasgardenspot.wordpress.com/tag/belladonna/ and http://naturephotocloseup.eu/main.php?g2_itemId=1948&g2_jsWarning=true
Belladonna flowers and berries. Image adapted from: https://auntiedogmasgardenspot.wordpress.com/tag/belladonna/ and http://naturephotocloseup.eu/main.php?g2_itemId=1948&g2_jsWarning=true

Toxicity

Atropa belladonna is well known for being one of the most toxic plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain toxic tropane alkaloids that target the nervous system, causing increased heart rate and inhibited movement of skeletal muscle. The symptoms of belladonna poisoning are often slow to appear and include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, tachycardia (increased heart rate), headache, hallucinations and delirium. The symptoms often last for several days, before coma and convulsions occur, followed by death. Belladonna poisoning is caused by disruptions in the regulation of involuntary activities (such as heart rate) due to the tropane alkaloids.

A Brendel model showing the fruit of a belladonna plant.
A Brendel model showing the fruit of a belladonna plant.

History of belladonna

In the middle ages, belladonna was sometimes used to make Dwale, which was an early form of herbal anaesthetic. Other ingredients in this early anaesthetic included bile, hemlock, lettuce, opium and vinegar. In addition to its use as an anaesthetic, belladonna was said to be one of the key ingredients, along with hemlock and wolfsbane, in the witches flying ointment. This magic potion supposedly allowed witches to fly on their brooms.

Materia Medica jar containing belladonna leaves.
Materia Medica jar containing belladonna leaves.

For centuries, small doses of belladonna have been used as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory. Eye drops made from the plant were also used cosmetically as a method for dilating the pupils, which was considered attractive and seductive in women. To combat the toxicity of the plant, morphine from the opium poppy Papaver somniferum was used. The two plants act against each other, and were used to produce the ‘twilight sleep’. This was a dreamlike state that was utilised as a way to deaden pains and consciousness during labour. Queen Victoria famously used the ‘twilight sleep’ during childbirth. However, despite their pain relief, the drugs could affect the nervous system of the baby, resulting in a poor ability to breathe. Belladonna is still used by pharmaceutical industries today as well as in various homeopathic medicines.

Use as a poison

The most famous use for belladonna throughout history was its use as a poison. In ancient Rome, the Emperor Augustus (who defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra) was rumoured to have been poisoned by his wife Livia in 14 AD. This resulted in her son Tiberius from a previous marriage to become the next Emperor. Another Roman Emperor supposedly murdered by belladonna was the Emperor Claudius, who was said to be killed by the poisoner Locusta on the orders of his wife Agrippina the Younger. King Macbeth of Scotland, whilst still one of the lieutenants of King Duncan I, used belladonna during a truce in order to stop the troops of the invading Harold Harefoot, who was king of England. Agatha Christie also featured belladonna in a number of her works, including The Caribbean Mystery and The Big Four.

Herbarium sheet depicting belladonna leaves.
Herbarium sheet depicting belladonna leaves.
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