Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is a poisonous plant that has been used as a medicine since ancient times. It is named “Belladonna” for the “beautiful women” of Renaissance Italy, who took it to enlarge their pupils, which they found more alluring.
But it also goes by a more sinister name — deadly nightshade — that implies a darker history. Indeed, not only are its dark berries sometimes known as murderer’s berries, sorcerer’s berries, and even devil’s berries, they are thought to be the poison that caused Juliet to appear dead in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Nightshade has also been thought to be one of the main ingredients of witch’s flying potions, along with, monkshood and other toxic plants. A belladonna trip isn’t always fatal, and it’s believed that in the past people had a stronger tolerance to the plant, allowing them to explore its psychoactive uses. Legends attribute the results of the Gaelic herb of courage to belladonna, which caused their warriors to totally let go in battle.
Today belladonna is used in the pharmaceutical industry, as it has been for ages by cunning women throughout Europe for everything from muscle relaxers, pain relievers, menstrual problems and stomach ailments.
Belladonna is a European plant, and not necessarily ideal for growing in North America, though it can be done. The difficult bit is germinating. Ideally you’ll sew your seeds on the Winter Solstice, and the following spring if you’re lucky, and the weather gods cooperate, you should have plants in the spring.
Last year’s plants might still hang on, depending on how mild your winter is. In the second year, leaves are smaller and the plant tends to grow taller, up to six foot. Since animals do eat the berries which contain the seeds, if you want to save seeds for next year, it’s best to pick the berries.
Belladonna likes partly shady to shady areas, and it’s possible to grow indoors, though in a pot it likely stays smaller. For best results, treat your soil whether indoors or out with lime, and fertilize from time to time.
Artist: Maxine Miller