Botany gone bad: The history of the deadly nightshade plant
The perennial herbaceous plant, deadly nightshade, has a very shadowy history, and its use by man throughout the centuries has been a harrowing tale of beauty, life, and death.
Deadly nightshade is a part of the Solanaceae family of flowering plants which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and more, and can be found growing throughout most of the northern hemisphere. To the untrained eye, this perennial looks perfectly normal, but don’t be deceived, this is far from your average shrub.
Deadly nightshade throughout time
During the Middle Ages, a beauty tonic made from the leaves and berries of the deadly nightshade was used by Venetian women to redden the pigment of their skin for a blush-like appearance.
The beauty tonic was also used to dilate women’s pupils. At the time, this was a look and practice that was seen as fashionable. It’s from this popularity as a cosmetic that the deadly nightshade established its formal name, Atropa Belladonna, meaning “Beautiful Lady” in Italian.
But what began as a beautifying agent quickly became associated with much more malicious activities. It didn’t take long for the plant’s use as a poison began to overtake its use as a beautifying agent.
The horror stories of death and deceit quickly entered the public consciousness and worked their way into the legends and lore of the time. The plant developed a reputation as the poison of choice for assassins and criminals. Folk tales suggest it was the ingredient of choice for occultist potions made by witches and sorcerers.
What makes deadly nightshade poisonous?
The compounds that make deadly nightshade so lethal are called Atropine and Scopolamine. These toxic ingredients are so powerful that a minuscule amount slipped into a drink or added to a meal can send full-grown adults into paralysis, cause severe hallucinations, delirium, confusion, convulsions, and death.
The nightshade has been a killer of kings, emperors, and warriors throughout history. The Roman military created a deadly paste from the plant that was used to make poison-tipped arrows for archers, a practice that was in use for centuries.
Not even Kings were spared of the terror. Macbeth, King of Scotland, Emperor Augustus of Rome, and Emperor Claudius of Rome were all laid to rest at the hand of the deadly nightshade.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the notorious poison of kings reinvented itself one last time.
The reinvention of deadly nightshade
After centuries of use as a poison and cosmetic, the medicinal uses of deadly nightshade were finally realized and made available to treat a variety of illnesses and ailments. Its medical applications include use as a pain reliever, muscle relaxer, anti-inflammatory, and as a treatment for whooping cough and hay fever.
With a history so dark and tumultuous, it’s a miracle the deadly nightshade continues to have such a bright future in the world today. Although it is no longer used as a cosmetic, and incidental deaths do still occur, the “Beautiful Lady” saves more lives than she takes these days.
Be careful. The shrub may look innocent but they are toxic.
Looking to add some indoor plants for the colder months? Check out our blog featuring fall indoor plant tips.