Deadly Nightshade: Delicate but Dangerous

Like the death cap mushroom, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) certainly lives up to its name. To us, it’s one of the most deadly wild plants known to man, but to some wildlife, it can be a source of food. It’s one of the plants responsible for the age-old knowledge that is continuously passed down the generations, even today. “Don’t eat any berries you find in the woods!”.

Although incredibly dangerous, its reputation can often overshadow its medicinal potential. Official extracts of certain deadly nightshade compounds can be found in some health and well-being stores, with claims that they can cure minor ailments.

Two shiny black berries with an immature green berry forming on the right hand side.
Deadly nightshade berries | Photo by Puusterke on Wikimedia Commons

What Are The Active Compounds in Deadly Nightshade?

Old homeopathy container | Wikidudeman on Wikimedia Commons

The berries and leaves of deadly nightshade contain the highest amount of toxins. They have a high amount of hyoscyamine, scopolamine, atropine, which can all be hallucinogenic and deadly when ingested in large quantities.

What are the Symptoms of Deadly Nightshade Poisoning?

Symptoms will vary depending on how much is ingested but the toxins can cause severe nausea and cramping, convulsions, delirium, and in most cases, death.

What is the medicinal potential of Deadly Nightshade?

It’s possible to purchase an atropine extract of deadly nightshade for use as a herbal remedy. You can usually buy it in tablet form to treat minor conditions like the common cold, nausea, and abdominal cramping. As with any herbal product, you should consult a doctor before taking belladonna alongside any other medication you may be using. It’s important to only buy from trusted sources, and not attempt to create your own medicine from belladonna.

Cultural Symbolism and Mythology of Deadly Nightshade

Because of its deadly potential, deadly nightshade became entwined with a number of legends, myths, and folk tales.

  • The plant was largely associated with the devil. It was thought that poisoning was the devils punishment for eating the berries.
  • In folkloric tales, it was believed witches used a mixture of deadly plants, including deadly nightshade to create a hallucinogenic ‘flying’ potion.
  • In some areas within Europe the red pigment of the berries was used to create a make-up to blush the cheeks.
  • It’s deadly potential made people suspect its use in a number of assassination attempts and murders.
A collection of ripe and immature deadly nightshade berries | Photo by Agnieszka Kwiecień on Wikimedia Commons

Notable Deadly Nightshade Poisonings

The Romans were well aware of the poisonous potential of deadly nightshade, and traces of the toxins have been found on arrow tips. Legends also dictate that the famous Macbeth used deadly nightshade to poison rival troops.

What Does Deadly Nightshade Look Like?

Deadly nightshade is a bushy plant with an average growth height of 1 meter. Its branches are long and thin and hold pointed, oval-shaped leaves. It belongs to the Solanaceae family, which includes a number of familiar edible plants, like tomatoes and potatoes. Its delicate drooping flowers are generally green and fade to purple at the tips of the petals.

The black, juicy-looking berries may look delicious, but they are incredibly toxic, and a small handful would be enough to kill an adult, let alone a child. While deadly nightshade has prominent characteristics that make it fairly easy to ID, foragers must always be careful when identifying wild berries.

A close up of the deadly nightshade flower | Photo by Puusterke on Wikimedia Commons

Where Does Deadly Nightshade Grow?

Deadly nightshade — or Belladonna as it is sometimes known — can be a common find in woodland, forest edges, and scrubland, particularly on chalky soils. It has also been found around the edges of old buildings and parkland and areas of disturbed soil.

Its native range covers most of Europe and extends into North Africa and the middle east — however, it is now naturalized in areas of North America.

Did You Know…

The name ‘belladonna’ became a popular name for the plant because of an interesting use it had within Italy… Women would take extracts of the plant to dilate their pupils, believing it made them more alluring. Loosely translated it means ‘fair lady’. The compound that caused the dilation is known as atropine, and it is still used in some eye examinations today.


Overall the plant has a delicate and subtle beauty. It may be deadly, but it has a rich history and can provide some interesting medicinal uses when correctly processed.

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