When I was a girl, I went for a walk in the forest with my family. While prancing about, as I was wont to do, I came across a bush of the most beautiful berries surrounded by flowers that looked, to me, like small purple bluebells. I was young, but I remember the allure of those shiny dark berries. I had just popped the first few in my mouth when I felt a sharp slap on my back and then the shock of my brother’s fingers jammed in my mouth as he tried to get the berries out. That was the day I met Atropa Belladonna, better known by its folk-name, Deadly Nightshade.
I didn’t die (clearly) from my brush with the famous herb. Despite my pleading that I didn’t swallow one berry, my mother insisted on a dose of Ipecac and a trip to the doctor to make sure of it.
[For those of you born to a gentler time, Syrup of Ipecac was the foul OTC brew in every 80s mother’s first aid kit. It induces gut reaching vomiting, which turns out is a bad thing in most poisonings. It has been out of production since 2010.]
The little flowering bush has fascinated me ever since. I mean its names alone, Atropa Belladonna and Deadly Nightshade. Both names are so goth they should be wearing Sisters of Mercy tee shirts, dancing while staring at their feet, and smoking clove cigarettes. The Atropa bit is in homage to Atropos one of the three Greek sisters of fate known as the Moirai. Atropos was the one that cut the thread of life. Belladonna, from the Italian for beautiful lady, pays tribute to its use in cosmetics. Atropa Belladonna has always been the gothy siren of the apothecary which explains its presence in medicine, perfume, cosmetics, and folklore for over a millennium.
Lilliputians & Twilight Sleep
If Belladonna is weird, it’s because she comes from a strange family. The Solanaceae or Nightshade Order include both annuals and perennials that take the form of vines, lianas, epiphytes, shrubs, and trees; otherwise known as just all the plants. This order includes staple foods like Potatoes, Tomatoes, Eggplants, and Chilli Peppers; as well as florals like Petunias and things like Mandrakes, Tobacco, our old friend Datura, and Belladonna filled with toxic tropane alkaloids. Go home Solanaceae Order; you’re drunk.
Belladonna’s power comes from three alkaloids in particular; Atropine, Scopolamine, and Hyoscyamine. These alkaloids can reach toxic levels for humans in small amounts. Deaths have been reported from adults that ate one leaf. In minuscule doses, Belladonna can cause Lilliputian hallucinations (where objects and people appear larger or smaller than they are) as well as delirium. They also disrupt neurotransmitters in the peripheral and central nervous system which causes a relaxation of skeletal muscles, bowels, the heart and lungs. Not to mention the hyperdilation of the pupils, which we will discuss more below.
As taxonomically challenged and possibly lethal as Belladonna and her sister species are, they have also been a boon to humanity. Belladonna has been used as a sedative, painkiller, and sleep aid since ancient Greece and probably earlier. It was traditionally brewed in teas, in tinctures of vinegar, or alcohol. It was often used in tandem with Mandrake, Wormwood, and sometimes Opium Poppy. Some have postulated that the Vinegar and Gall in the crucifixion story may have contained some combination of Mandrake, Wormwood, and Belladonna as pain relief or maybe a kinder death than the cross.
Belladonna as a medicine has never left us, however; it has just become more refined. Belladonna’s alkaloids are used today as an anticholinergic agent to assist with everything from GI issues in Parkison patents, to asthma, chronic bronchitis, and COPD. It still is an active ingredient in insomnia medications, surgical sedation, and anti-nausea. It is also used to counter the effects of nerve gas.
If that wasn’t enough, Belladonna’s Scopolamine mixed with Morphine (known commonly as Twilight Sleep) was available as a pricey birth pain management option from the Victorian age into the 1960s when women decided that they wanted to be awake for the birth of their children for some reason. Twilight Sleep was rather grandly marketed in the 1920s as modern science reversing the curse of Eve.
[Once again for the youth, Twilight Sleep produced a semi-narcotic state where women gave birth without pain, feeling, or memory of the birth. Sometimes giving birth unconscious with the assistance of forceps. It eventually was stopped because women found it traumatic and it led to reduced breathing capacity in newborns.]
Like other hallucinogenic plants we have talked about, Belladonna has a long association with women, witches, herblore, and murder. It is another ingredient in the infamous Medieval witches’ flying ointment of folklore, which in some iterations contained Belladonna, Datura, Opium Poppies, Monkshood, Wolf’s Bane, and Hemlock.
Belladonna’s history in lore goes back much further, however. It was used in the worship of both Bellona (the Roman goddess of war) and Hecate (the Greek goddess of crossroads, magic, and poisonous plants) to invoke visions and prophecies. The later “flying” ointment may have been an interpretation of a surviving remnant of prophecy or vision questing practices from older faith systems. These folk traditions, practised by female shamans, and using household items as talismans for sympathetic magic (like brooms) may be a more authentic representation of the women that the early Church saw as a threat to their power. In response to this supposed menace, the Church launched a 1,000-year smear campaign against them, calling them witches. Their ceremonies, ritual herbs, and talismans reduced down to nothing more than demonic transportation.
The Nefarious Women trope need not be limited to the witch. The poisoner was another favourite archetype for presenting bad women, and Belladonna was there too. Locosta, Canidia and Martina are the three most famous poisoners of ancient Rome and Belladonna was reported to have grown in all three of their gardens. Locosta was a particular fan. She was hired by Agrippina the Younger to create a dish of poisonous mushrooms steeped in Belladonna sauce for the murder of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina’s husband. Three generations earlier Empress Livia Drusilla was accused by the senators Tacitus and Cassius Dio of using Belladonna infused figs to poison Emperor Agustus as well as several other members of the Julian family.
Infamous 18th-century Napolean poisoner Giulia Tofana produced Aqua Tofana for over 50 years to help wives speed up the timeline to widowhood. Aqua Tofana was marketed as a cosmetic and sold exclusively to women. It contained ingredients not uncommon in cosmetics of the time Belladonna, Arsenic, and Lead. Though instead of being applied to the skin, it was poured into the evening soup. When she was finally caught and executed, it was believed that Tofana had assisted in the poisoning of over 600 men throughout Italy. [more on her in an upcoming post]
Lest you think that Belladonna poisoning is only for the ladies, before his betrayal of King Duncan of Scotland, the real historical McBeth used a political truce to slip some Belladonna in the wine of the troops of the invading King Harold I of England, which led to their retreat.
While it has been poison, poultice, and potion, Belladonna has also had a softer side as a cosmetic and a dubious perfume ingredient. 16th-century Italian noblewomen applied the Essence of Belladonna directly to the eyes to create gigantic pupils through dilation. It was thought to make the eyes appear larger and more youthful. Kind of like the popularity of doe-eyed circle lenses in South Korea today. While the practice caused headaches, blurred vision, and a few reports of blindness, it was so common that pupil size of female subjects is a quick shorthand way art historians date Italian portraits of the era.
Belladonna’s use in perfume is a bit hard to nail down and at best seems historically shaky. It has been alluded to as a possible ingredient in many classic fragrances particularly at the height of 17th-century Italian perfumery but never confirmed by the recipes or perfumer’s notes that have been found. Belladonna’s appeal seemed to be in the allusion to danger and transgressive female glamour that it inherited from its association with the archetype of the witch and the poisoner. It is unlikely to have been used in traditional perfumery, however. While you can get Belladonna essential oil, it is a very mild floral that retains it’s tropane alkaloids after distillation. Which means it really can’t be used in non-therapeutic consumable products….well at least not anymore.
“But wait”, you say, “I saw it listed on Lady Gaga’s perfume! Does her perfume contain trippy poison?”
Well, perfumers are under no obligation to list the actual notes in the bottle (more on that another time). They can use all kinds of creative imagery to describe a scent. Just as an amber note is not composed of semi-precious stones, so to a modern perfume sporting a Belladonna note is made using a synthetic or composition accord. Belladonna as a listed ingredient tends to be shorthand for a mix of narcotics (heavy florals) and berries. Blackberry and Current are often the berry notes on display. I suspect Methyl anthranilate provides that pucker of grape skin tartness associated with this note. Narcissus, Jasmine, Opium Poppy and Orchids are some of the flowers that are paired with the sweeter fruitiness to pick up that fruity girliness and move it from tutti-frutti bubblegum to something more mature and exotic. I consider it a play on, or maybe a more sophisticated take, on a gourmand berry accord.
So the next time a perfume counter employee leans in and says, “you know, it contains Deathly Nightshade” as if they are sharing a delicious secret. You can now triumphantly say, “Well actually…” like the smart cookie you are.
You can find homages to Belladonna in:
Freak by Illamasqua
Black Dianthus by Il Profvmo
Fame by Lady Gaga
Fig and Pink Cedar by Nougat
Elvira’s Vamp by Demeter Fragrance
Deadly Nightshade by Alkemia
Atropa Belladonna by Shay & Blue London