Deceptively deadly: belladonna

Deadly nightshade, or belladonna, is a toxic plant that is found in Sussex this time of year. Sebastian Oake tells us more about this lethal berry

If you go down to the woods today you might see some shiny black berries that definitely shouldn’t be on the rug at any picnic – teddy bears’ or otherwise.

The berries belong to a plant whose full name is Atropa belladonna and whose dull purple flowers bloomed probably unnoticed in woodland clearings in the early summer. Indeed, most of the year, Atropa belladonna is a rather ordinary looking bush, but then first glances can be deceptive. It is not ordinary at all.

The name belladonna comes from the Italian for “beautiful lady”. Once the well-to-do ladies of Venice applied an extract of the plant to their eyes. It made their pupils grow bigger, making them, or so they thought, more attractive. But it is not for this that the plant has earned unparalleled infamy. Its common name is deadly nightshade and it is probably the most poisonous plant in the English countryside.

Most people have heard of deadly nightshade. When I was at junior school I had it drummed into me that I should on no account confuse its alluring black berries with blackcurrants or anything else I might think of putting in my mouth.

It was good advice because eating just a few berries can be fatal. Deadly nightshade contains powerful toxins and ingesting them can lead to a train of deeply unpleasant symptoms that might begin with just dilation of the pupils but end with paralysis of the muscles that control breathing and heartbeat.

History and legend are littered with cases of poisoning from deadly nightshade. In the Middle Ages, during the reign of King Duncan I of Scotland, soldiers of Macbeth were said to have poisoned a whole company of enemy soldiers with a liquor treated with an infusion of “sleepy nightshade”. In Roman times Emperor Augustus was reputedly killed by it at the hands of his own wife, Livia. And in ancient Greece, it was a suspected ingredient of the potion that the sorceress Circe gave to the sailors of Odysseus, who then “turned into swine”. Even early man noticed the plant’s effects. He made poison arrows from it.

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Belladonna was especially popular with mediaeval witches who mashed it up to prepare so-called flying ointment. This intoxicating mix of belladonna and other plants – originally held together with bear’s grease – was rubbed into the skin to produce wild delusions and even a sensation of flying.

Then in the 1830s the main toxic ingredient of belladonna, atropine, was first extracted in its pure form. It became even easier to poison someone... In 1868 Marie Jeanneret, a Swiss nurse, was convicted of killing seven of her patients with the extract.

And in 1892 a doctor, Robert Buchanan, murdered his wife with an overdose of morphine, using atropine to reverse the pinpointing of the pupils, which would otherwise have given away the use of morphine.

The strangest case is also the most recent.

In 1994 a research biologist in Scotland gave his wife a gin with tonic water laced with atropine. The scientist wove an elaborate plan that involved spiking tonic water bottles with atropine in his local supermarket to suggest the work of a random criminal. But he miscalculated the dose he gave his wife and she survived, giving the police an important lead. The man was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Certainly belladonna is a plant with horror stories to tell but as with many things toxic, in very small amounts, extracts of the plant can be put to positive use. In medicine they are used to treat a wide range of conditions. The muscle-relaxant property that widens the pupils is the key to many eye operations while gastrointestinal disorders, Parkinson’s disease and poisoning by pesticide chemicals and nerve gas can all be combated with tiny doses of the same chemicals that bring the plant such notoriety.

The world of deadly nightshade is full of strangeness and therefore intrigue. Whenever I’m out walking in the right places, I keep an eye out for this plant. And whenever I find it, I invariably stand still in fascination, almost spellbound by this black prince of the plant kingdom. It is not a common plant and is very specific in its requirements but if you know what they are, you will find it.

Mainly a plant of the chalklands of southern England, it grows on disturbed ground or in woodland clearings. It grows here and there along the western section of the South Downs, including amongst scrub around Beacon Hill and along woodland fringes at Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve. A coloniser, it is quick to take advantage of new breaks in the woodland canopy. Michael Fish’s Great Storm of 1987 produced a surge of deadly nightshade in areas of flattened trees, albeit a short-lived one as the woodland soon recovered and started shading out the smaller shrubs once more.

In today’s modern world, where order and safety rule, some people are frightened of deadly nightshade and would like to see it eradicated. Some take a stick to it, convinced they are  doing a good turn, but the fact is hardly anyone ever dies from accidentally eating the berries, not even in central Europe where foraging in the forest is a great tradition. And let’s not forget those uses in medical science. The plant also has relatives in very high places. Botanically, deadly nightshade is part of the family Solanaceae, which not only contains other nightshades but also some of our best loved food staples, like the tomato and the indispensable potato. Potato and tomato leaves are poisonous too and it’s also why you should cut the green bits out of potatoes when you peel them.

Perhaps then belladonna is not so odd after all. It’s poisonous, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a threat. It’s just one of those things in the countryside that needs a bit of extra respect, like an angry bull or a nest of wild bees. Most of all, it’s just another part of nature, with all its richness and variety and wonder. Many people would say we try to tame nature too much as it is.

So, if you go down to the woods today for a picnic, common sense is all that’s needed. Don’t taunt bad tempered bulls or look for honey on the way and don’t go picking those big black berries either...

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