Atropa belladonna
Common Name: deadly nightshade 
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Family: Solanaceae
Native Range: Eurasia, Meditterranean
Zone: 5 to 9
Height: 3.00 to 4.00 feet
Spread: 3.00 to 4.00 feet
Bloom Time: June to September
Bloom Description: Dull purple with green tinges
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Flower: Showy, Fragrant

Culture

Grows in well-drained sandy loams in full sun to part shade.

Noteworthy Characteristics

Atropa belladonna, commonly known as deadly nightshade or belladonna, is one of the most toxic plants native to the Eastern Hemisphere. It is a branched, thick-rooted, herbaceous perennial of the nightshade family (e.g., tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco, chili peppers, and jimsonweed) that grows to 3-4’ tall. It is native from England through central and southern Europe to Iran. It is typically found in woods and thickets, but is also often found in disturbed areas, waste places, and roadsides where it typically spreads rapidly in a weed-like manner. It has naturalized in certain parts of the U.S., mostly in dumps, quarries and disturbed ground in parts of New York, Michigan, California, Oregon and Washington.

The foliage, fruits and roots of this plant are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. In humans, small doses of material from this plant will produce delirium and hallucinations, but larger doses will kill. The risk to children who do not understand the poisonous characteristics of all parts of this plant are huge. Leaves, fruits and roots are highly toxic and can kill humans through ingestion or by contact with open wounds, cuts or abrasions. Consumption of as few as two berries can kill a child. Consumption of 10 berries is often lethal to an adult. Dogs and cats are susceptible to the poison, but many other animals and birds can eat the fruits with no ill effects.

Ovate leaves of unequal size range from 3-10” long. Lower leaves are solitary and upper leaves are in pairs of unequal size. Mildly scented, bell-shaped flowers are dull purple with green tinges. Flowers bloom in the leaf axils from June to early September. Berries (to 5/8” diameter) ripen to shiny black from late August to October. Berries are sweet.

Tropane alkaloids of this plant were used as poisons in early times. In 1030, Scotland’s King Duncan I passed around bottles of a drink made up of plant berries to an army of Danes during a period of truce, resulting in death to all Danes without any need for use of military force. Belladonna has been dubbed by some observers as the drug of assassins.

On a more positive note, this plant has been and currently continues to be cultivated, particularly in eastern Europe, for certain medically active compounds which are used to produce a wide range of medicines for treatment of such matters as pupil dilation for eye operations, intestinal colic, peptic ulcers, Parkinson’s disease and toadstool poisoning.

Historically, the dilation of eye pupils by women was once believed to increase physical beauty and seductiveness, thus leading to use of very tiny cosmetic quantities of this plant by some women in eye drops for purposes of improving physical appearance.

Belladonna and related plants such as jimson weed have occasionally been used as recreational drugs because of the vivid hallucinations and delirium they produce.

Genus name comes from the name of the Greek goddess Atropos who was one of the three Fates whose particular business was to hold the shears to cut the thread of human life (reference to poison).

Specific epithet means pretty lady in reference to the ancient use of the plant as an addition in tiny quantities to cosmetics for dilation of eye pupils.

Problems

No serious insect or disease problems. Slugs love this plant.

Garden Uses

Although this plant is commercially grown for production of medical products, it is poisonous in all of its parts to humans and should never be planted in home landscapes. Arguably it should only be grown in controlled situations for commercial drug production, research, or teaching.