The perennial root is thick, fleshy and whitish, about 6 inches long, or more, and branching. The purplish colored stem is annual. It is stout, 2 to 4 feet high, undivided at the base, but dividing a little above the ground into three branches, each of which again branches freely.
The leaves are dull, darkish green and of unequal size, 3 to 10 inches long. The lower leaves are
solitary, the upper ones in pairs alternately from opposite sides of the stem, one leaf of each pair much larger than the other, oval in shape. First-year plants grow only about 1-1/2 feet high. Their leaves are often larger than in full-grown plants and grow on the stem immediately above the ground. Older plants attain a height of 3 to 5 feet, occasionally even 6 feet. Soft, downy hairs may occur on the leaves and stems when quite young. The veins of the leaves are prominent on the under surface, especially the midrib, which is depressed on the upper surface of the leaf. The fresh plant, when crushed, emits a disagreeable odor, almost disappearing on drying, and the leaves have a bitter taste, when both fresh and dry.
The flowers, which appear in June and July, singly, in the axils of the leaves, and continue blooming until early September, are of a dark and dingy purplish color, tinged with green, large (about an inch long), pendent, bell-shaped, furrowed, the corolla with five large teeth or lobes, slightly reflexed. The five-cleft calyx spreads round the base of the smooth berry, which ripens in September, when it acquires a shining black color and is about the size of a small cherry. It contains several seeds. The berries are full of a dark, inky juice, and are intensely sweet, and their attraction to children on that account, has from their poisonous properties, been attended with fatal results.
Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade family)
Other Names: Black cherry, Belladonna, Dwale, Poison black cherry
Flowers: June – September
Parts Used: Leaves, tops, berries
Habitat: Waste places. Eastern U.S.
More commonly in Europe pastures, mountain forests, ruins, and waste places.
Constituents: Hyoscyamine, scopolamine, atropine
History: Belladonna is supposed to have been the plant that poisoned the troops of Marcus Antonius during the Parthian wars. Plutarch gives a graphic account of the strange effects that followed its use.
In the history of Scotland (1582) when Duncan I was King of Scotland, the soldiers of Macbeth poisoned a whole army of invading Danes by a liquor mixed with an infusion of Belladonna supplied to them during a truce. Suspecting nothing, the invaders drank deeply and were easily overpowered and murdered in their sleep by the Scots.
The generic name of the plant, Atropa, is derived from the Greek Atropas, one of the Fates who held the shears to cut the thread of human life – a reference to its deadly, poisonous nature.
Properties: Narcotic, diuretic, sedative, antispasmodic.
Main Uses: Belladonna is a most valuable plant in the treatment of eye diseases. Atropine, obtained during extraction, being its most important constituent because of its power of dilating the pupil. Atropine is used by optometrists to dilate the pupils of the eyes of their patients before testing their sight for glasses. And scarcely any operation on the eye can be safely performed without the aid of this valuable drug.
The various preparations of Belladonna have many uses. Locally applied, it lessens irritability and pain, and is used as a lotion, plaster or liniment in cases of neuralgia, gout, rheumatism and sciatica.
It is of value in acute sore throat, and relieves local inflammation and congestion.
It increases the rate of the heart by some 20 to 40 beats per minute, without diminishing its force. Small doses allay cardiac palpitation.
Warning HIGHLY TOXIC! May be fatal if too much is ingested.
Powdered leaves: 1 to 2 grains
Powdered root: 1 to 5 grains
Fluid extract (leaves): 1 to 3 drops
Fluid extract (root): 1/4 to 1 drop
Tincture: 2 to 5 drops