Meet Belladonna. A plant with a charming name and a long, sordid history of use and abuse. In Italian, it translates to “beautiful lady” as the juice of its berries was once artfully used by Venetian women to redden cheeks and widen eyes. Its name in English — deadly nightshade — is a nod to its illustrious career as a poison tracing back to ancient times where it allegedly took down Emperors Claudius and Augustus of Rome.
Nevertheless, belladonna contains substances with therapeutic properties that benefit a variety of medicines. Here’s everything you need to know about this infamous plant.
A Dangerous Beauty
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a perennial plant native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, but also grows wild in some parts of the U.S. You can identify this plant by its purple, bell-shaped flowers. It also bears juicy jet-black berries that further add to its sinister look.
Atropa belladonna is a member of the Solanaceae family which includes potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. While those varieties of nightshade plants are safe to eat, deadly nightshade should never be ingested. All parts of it contain the alkaloid compounds atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine that are lethal to humans, especially the berries. Oddly enough, these toxins do not affect certain animals like rabbits and cattle who can happily graze without any serious problems. Regardless, deadly nightshade is not the best choice for gardens since it remains toxic to pets and other wildlife.
A Friend to Medicine
Despite being poisonous, belladonna has a long history of medicinal use. Ancient Greek healers would put it in drinks to induce numbness and drowsiness in patients about to undergo amputations and other rudimentary surgical procedures of the time. Today, scientists extract its atropine to make prescription medications for all kinds of conditions, including gastrointestinal spasms from IBS and colitis, tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, and even heart problems. And if you’ve recently had an eye exam, chances are your eye doctor used drops containing this same chemical to dilate your pupils.
In its homeopathic form, deadly nightshade is prepared in a way that removes the plant’s toxic properties. Homeopathic Belladonna is ideal for conditions with symptoms that arise suddenly and are accompanied by sweating. The 6C dilution relieves high fevers of sudden onset with profuse sweating and can be found as one of the active ingredients in ColdCalm. Similarly, it can be used for headaches with head congestion and sensitivity to light and noise; hot flashes with sweating; and restless sleep with sweating caused by fear from a nightmare. Belladonna 30C helps relieve red, hot, and painful skin from a burn or sunburn.*
*Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.