Belladonna - Atropa bella-donna L.


 

Belladonna, also deadly nightshade, common name for an Old World herb (see Nightshade), and for a crude drug obtained from the plant. Belladonna is a biennial or annual plant with large simple leaves and bell-shaped flowers. The flower tube is five-pointed, dull purple or red-purple, and surrounded by five green sepals. The fruit is a single green berry that becomes purple to black with maturity.

Belladonna is occasionally grown in gardens in North America but rarely becomes naturalized. It does not normally persist without cultivation. Other members of the nightshade family are sometimes erroneously called belladonna. All parts of the true belladonna are poisonous and narcotic. The leaves and root contain alkaloids;

one, atropine, is used to dilate the pupils of the eyes, to facilitate eye examinations and as an antispasmodic in the treatment of asthma. In earlier times in Italy, extracts of belladonna were used by women for the cosmetic value of this dilating effect; such use explains the origin of the common name (Italian, "beautiful woman").

Anyone eating the fruits of Belladonna may exhibit symptoms ranging from meaningless laughter to a terryfying range of hallucinations. Victims have themselves described the sensations of flying, or rapid movement and of whirling around in circles. Worse still, as little as five berries have been known to constitute a fatal dose, and this plant still represents a terrible threat to children drawn unknowningly to its berries. For some reason animals have better resistance to atropine than man.

It is the toxic effects of atropine which are reflected in the names by which this dangerous plant is known in various languages, such as Madman's Cherry (Tollkirsche in German) and Deadly Nightshade. It is scarcely surprising that plants of the nightshade family - Belladonna included - were a part of the stock in trade of medieval witches.

Nevertheless, Belladonna, which is a native to Europe and western Asia, is undeniably a lovely woodland plant of stately, even exotic appearence. This, perhaps, is due to its habit of growth. The stem is stout and bluntly angular, with alternate, entire leaves; those on the flower-bearing stems are nearly opposite and one is markedly larger than the other. The stem sometimes branches, as if from a single point, and the entire plant then looks like a spreading umbrella.

The flowers, borne singly from June till August, are drooping. The sepals and petals are joined, bell-like. The fruit, a large berry the size of a cherry, is green at first, black later; it nestles in the star-like calyx. It contains tiny reticulate seeds. Belladonna is a perennial herb with a strong branching root. It is still cultivated as a medicinal plant.

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