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The History of Belladonna

By Ma Wen Jie ; Updated September 21, 2017
Belladonna has beautiful purple flowers

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is a highly poisonous plant. Every part of the plant is highly poisonous, and ingesting even small amounts can result in poisoning. Depending on the variety, belladonna grows to between 18 inches and 6 feet in height. Ideal climate zones for cultivating this plant are Zones 6 to 9.

Early History

Belladonna has been known since prehistoric times. Ancient legends claim the plant is grown by a devil. It was given the name belladonna after the ancient belief that the plant can take the form of a beautiful woman to entice victims to consume the poison. Belladonna is thought to be the plant that poisoned the army of Marcus Antonius in the Parthian wars. In England, during Chaucer's time, belladonna was known as dwale. Because it doesn't grow in great quantities in England, its history in Southern Europe most likely goes much further back than the recorded history of the Parthian wars.

The British Isles

Although not common in the British Isles, belladonna, usually referred to as dwale, has been part of culture, lore and literature for centuries. According to "The History of Scotland," the soldiers of Macbeth poisoned an entire army of Danes under the Scottish King Duncan I. The invading army was poisoned by infusing liquor with belladonna.

Medicinal Use

Small quantities of belladonna have been used in medicine for centuries. It was the plant that was used in "Romeo and Juliet" to put Juliet to sleep. During the time of Pliny, it was used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures.

Modern Use

During the late 19th and early 20th century, commercial cultivation of belladonna became more common. It eventually was included in many medical texts for use in things like linaments and for use in very low quantities in tinctures.

Attributes of the Toxin

The toxicity of belladonna is caused by the alkaloid atropine. Atropine can be absorbed through cuts. Handling belladonna with open sores is one potential vector for poisoning. Belladonna is toxic to many animals, as well as humans. However, other animals, like horses, rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats, appear to be immune to its poisons. The roots of the plant are the most poisonous and should not be handled with bare skin.


About the Author


Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.