This week we discuss more Deadly Nightshades. A few weeks back we covered the Datura nightshades: Datura Stramonium (Jimsonweed) and Datura Metel (Indian Thornapple). Check it out here.
Belladonna and Henbane are nightshades that grow throughout Europe, but unless you live in a chicken hut à la Baba Yaga, you may not have encountered the plants in real life. They aren’t found in any supermarkets, and yet they are essential ingredients in any respectable witch’s hovel, likely hanging to dry above her cauldron collection.
Let’s talk first about Henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger.
Henbane, also commonly known as Black Henbane or Stinking Nightshade, is a hallucinogenic and poisonous nightshade that can be fatal in large quantities. The origin of the word henbane is unclear but it dates back to at least 1265 (and the ‘hen’ here most certainly refers to death, not chickens).
Historically, henbane was consumed both as anesthesia, and (more interestingly) for its psychoactive properties, which include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight. In ancient Greece, priestesses breathed in the smoke of burnt henbane to become soothsayers. By the middle ages, henbane was considered a dangerous plant used in witchcraft and necromancy. Necromancers were said to use henbane to summon demons and the dead, and “witches” combined henbane with other deadly plants (mandrake, belladonna and jimsonweed) to create potions or ointments. Typically the ointments were applied to surfaces (like broomsticks) and then rubbed on the body in order to absorb the plant without the gastrointestinal duress that eating or drinking the plant would cause.
Bonus Trivia: It is believed that Viking warrior may have consumed henbane in order to induce a state of berserker rage.
Bonus Bonus Trivia: Henbane was also used in beer before falling out of usage sometime between the 11th-16th centuries, to be replaced by hops. The final nail in the henbane-beer coffin was the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which outlawed every ingredient in beer other than barley, hops, yeast and water. Now, we were thinking that with so many craft breweries nowadays that a henbane beer must have been attempted in recent history… but no, google suggests otherwise.
Our second plant to introduce is Atropa Belladonna. Don’t let the shiny black, sweet berries deceive you. Atropa Belladonna, commonly known as Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, is a plant as deadly as its name suggests.
Atropa Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in existence, and it has a long history as a popular choice of poison. It was applied onto arrowheads by early humans, and it may have been used in ancient Rome to murder the emperor Augustus. 1000 years later Macbeth of Scotland used belladonna to poison English troops during a truce with Harold I of England, forcing an English retreat. Belladonna was also used in combination with laudanum to poison Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who authored Twelve Years a Slave.
The name Belladonna (beautiful woman) originates from the plant’s historical cosmetic use by women during the Renaissance. Drops from belladonna were put into the eyes to cause a dilation of the pupils, which was viewed as a seductive effect. The plant is no longer used in this way, as side effects are numerous, including blindness with prolonged use.
Belladonna has also been used in a ritual to enhance female attractiveness in the ancient folk traditions of Romanians from Bukovinia (Moldovia/Ukraine). Young women would dig up the nightshade during Shrovetide, plant 3 offerings in its place (bread, salt and brandy) and walk home with the root on their heads. In order for the spell to work she could not divulge her intentions to any inquirers.
Hope you enjoyed learning about deadly nightshades! We plan on putting together a collection of deadly plants but it might take us a few weeks. We’re busy cookin’ up some nightshades at the moment (potato wedges). 🥔