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.
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.
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.
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.
Part 1 of this blog post (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-1/) focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!
One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or ‘to be renewed’.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a brightly coloured flowering plant that has heads of yellow, orange or red. From these colourful flowers, different coloured dyes can be extracted. Twelfth dynasty (1991-1803 BC) Egyptian textiles used these dyes to colour fabrics a red, yellow and orange colour. The dyes were sometimes even used on mummy wrappings to give them colour. It wasn’t only the flower’s dye that was used by the ancient Egyptians. Seeds from the flower have been found in temple offerings. Safflower garlands have been found sewn onto both papyrus and cloth wrapped around the mummies. These garlands were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Oil derived from safflower seeds was also used for medicinal purposes as a means to treat insect and scorpion bites.
Ancient Egyptian tombs often contained baskets of juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Oil from the berries was used for anointing the body during the mummification process. The plant was not only used with the dead as both Egyptian cosmetics and medicine sometimes contained J. communis. Juniper was employed medicinally in the treatment of headaches, asthma, indigestion and aching joints.
Allium sativum, commonly called garlic, was used for both culinary and medicinal purposes by the Egyptians. It was used to treat a range of problems, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy. Garlic also featured in many dishes and it has been estimated that 1 ½ million lb (680,000 kg) to feed the slaves and workers building the pyramids at Giza. It appears that the ancient Egyptians revered the plant as images and sculptures have been found in many tombs, including that if Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
Believed to have been made by the god Thoth, Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) was used medicinally as an early form of painkiller and in cooking to add flavour to baked goods like bread. (For a more detailed history of the opium poppy check out my blog post https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/powerful-poppies/ ).
Ricinus communis (castor oil plant) was used extensively by the Egyptians; being employed as lamp oil, anointing oil and in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus, a medicinal text from ancient Egypt, has a whole section dedicated to the plant and its derivatives (particularly the oil). Castor oil extracted from the seeds was said to cure stomach illnesses, constipation, skin diseases, head-lice and hair restorer. They also believed that the oil was an effective treatment for treating diseases caused by demons.
I hope you have enjoyed this post and a huge thank you Campbell Price (the museum’s Curator of Egypt and Sudan) for all your help with this post! Check out Campbell’s Egypt blog at https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/ for more fascinating posts about ancient Egypt!