Deadly Nightshade, also known as Atropa Belladonna, is a perennial herbaceous plant with a long and intriguing history. The plant is native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, and has been used for centuries for its medicinal and hallucinogenic properties. However, Deadly Nightshade is also known for its high toxicity and has been associated with numerous cases of poisoning and death throughout history. In this article, we will examine the potential dangers and benefits of Deadly Nightshade and explore the scientific evidence behind its toxicity to humans. We will look at the chemical composition of the plant, the symptoms of poisoning, and the cases of Deadly Nightshade poisoning that have been reported over the years.

Sweet Looking Berries of the Deadly Nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)
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Is Deadly Nightshade Poisonous to Touch?

Yes, all parts of the deadly nightshade plant – including its leaves, stems, and berries – contain toxic compounds, primarily alkaloids like atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. While ingestion is the primary concern, the plant can also be harmful upon contact:

  • Skin Irritation: For some individuals, merely touching the plant can cause skin irritation. This is a dermatological reaction that might show as redness, itching, or rash. It’s not the same as the systemic toxic effects that can result from ingestion, but it’s still uncomfortable.
  • Allergic Reactions: Beyond direct irritation, some people might experience allergic reactions to the plant. Symptoms can vary, ranging from mild skin rashes to more severe reactions like difficulty breathing, especially if they have a known allergy to the plant.

How Toxic is Deadly Nightshade?

Deadly Nightshade contains several toxic compounds, including atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These compounds are collectively known as tropane alkaloids and are found in various parts of the plant, including the leaves, berries, and roots.

Tropane alkaloids affect the central nervous system and can cause a range of symptoms, including hallucinations, delirium, seizures, and even death.

What Happens if Someone Eats Deadly Nightshade?

When ingested, tropane alkaloids in Deadly Nightshade can cause a range of symptoms, including dry mouth, blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, and increased heart rate. In higher doses, they can cause hallucinations, confusion, and seizures, which can lead to coma or death. The severity of symptoms depends on the amount of plant material ingested, as well as the individual’s age, weight, and overall health.

Purple Deadly Nightshade Flower
Purple Deadly Nightshade Flower

What To Do if Someone Eats Deadly Nightshade?

If someone ingests deadly nightshade, it is important to seek emergency medical attention immediately, as it can be life-threatening. While waiting for medical professionals to arrive, it is important to try to remove any remaining plant material from the person’s mouth and rinse their mouth with water, if possible. Do not induce vomiting unless directed to do so by a medical professional.

How Do People Get Poisoned by Deadly Nightshade?

Most cases of Deadly Nightshade poisoning occur as a result of accidental ingestion, often by children who mistake the plant’s shiny black berries for edible fruits. Poisoning can also occur through skin contact or inhalation of plant particles, although these modes of transmission are less common. It is still recommended to wear gloves when handling the plant to prevent the toxins from being transferred to your eyes, mouth or open wounds!

Cases of Deadly Nightshade Poisoning in Humans

Historically, Deadly Nightshade has been used as a poison in political assassinations, as well as in witchcraft and sorcery. The most famous use of Deadly Nightshade as a poison occurred in ancient Rome, where it was reportedly used to poison enemies and political rivals. In modern times, cases of Deadly Nightshade poisoning are less common but still occur occasionally. Accidental ingestion of the plant or its berries is the most common cause of poisoning. Children are particularly vulnerable to accidental poisoning because the plant’s berries resemble edible fruits, such as cherries or blueberries.

Deadly Nightshade Flower
Deadly Nightshade Flower

What are the Symptoms of Deadly Nightshade Poisoning?

The symptoms of Deadly Nightshade poisoning can vary depending on the amount ingested but typically include dilated pupils, dry mouth, flushed skin, rapid heartbeat, and confusion. In severe cases, the symptoms can progress to seizures, hallucinations, and coma. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect someone has ingested Deadly Nightshade.

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Benefits and Uses of Deadly Nightshade

Atropine, which is derived from Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), is used in modern medicine to treat a variety of conditions. Some of the medical uses of atropine include:

Treating Bradycardia

Atropine is also used to treat bradycardia, which is a condition where the heart beats too slowly. Atropine works by blocking the action of the vagus nerve, which slows down the heart rate.

Reducing Secretions

Atropine can be used to reduce secretions during surgery, such as saliva, mucus, and sweat. This helps prevent complications during surgery, such as the aspiration of secretions into the lungs.

Antispasmodic

Atropine can be used as an antispasmodic to relax smooth muscle in the gastrointestinal tract, making it useful in treating conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

Note: While atropine can be a useful medication, it can also have side effects, especially in high doses. These side effects can include dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, difficulty urinating, confusion, and even hallucinations.

Dilating Pupils

Atropine is used by ophthalmologists to dilate the pupils during eye exams, making it easier to examine the eye’s interior.

Traditional Uses of Deadly Nightshade

Deadly Nightshade has also been used for a range of traditional purposes, such as a cosmetic to dilate the pupils, a poison for hunting and warfare, and a hallucinogen for spiritual and religious rituals.

Cosmetics

In ancient times, Deadly Nightshade was used as a cosmetic to dilate the pupils, making the eyes appear larger and more attractive. Women would use extracts of the plant to create a cosmetic known as belladonna, which means “beautiful lady” in Italian. However, this practice is extremely dangerous and can lead to blindness or other severe eye damage.

Hunting and Warfare

In some cultures, Deadly Nightshade was used as a poison for hunting and warfare. Hunters would smear the plant’s juices on their arrows or spears to poison their prey, while warriors would use it to poison their enemies.

Hallucinogenic and Spiritual Use

Deadly Nightshade has also been used as a hallucinogen for spiritual and religious rituals. Shamans and medicine men in various cultures would use the plant to induce visions and altered states of consciousness, believing that it would allow them to communicate with the spirit world.

Note: Deadly Nightshade has been used for these purposes in the past, they are all extremely dangerous and should never be attempted without the supervision of a trained professional.

How to Handle Deadly Nightshade Safely?

To avoid the risk of poisoning, it is important to handle Deadly Nightshade with care. If you need to dispose of Deadly Nightshade, it is important to do so safely and responsibly. Whilst wearing gloves, the plant should be shredded and added to your compost heap.

Conclusion

Deadly Nightshade is a fascinating but dangerous plant that has a long history of use for both medicinal and toxic purposes. The plant contains tropane alkaloids that can cause a range of symptoms, including hallucinations, delirium, seizures, and death. However, the plant has also been used for its medicinal properties and has been an important part of traditional cultures throughout history. While Deadly Nightshade can be toxic and potentially lethal, it can also have beneficial uses when used properly and in the right doses. It is important to handle the plant with care and to seek medical attention immediately if poisoning is suspected. As with any substance, the key is to use Deadly Nightshade responsibly and with caution.

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Garden Doctor Tips

“Do not eat or drink any part of the Deadly Nightshade plant, including the berries or leaves!”

“Keep Deadly Nightshade plants out of reach of children and pets!”

“Wash hands thoroughly after handling Deadly Nightshade, especially before eating or drinking!”

“If you suspect someone has ingested Deadly Nightshade, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY!”

Frequently Asked Questions

What does deadly nightshade do to you?

Ingesting any part of the plant can cause a range of symptoms, including dilated pupils, blurred vision, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, confusion, hallucinations, seizures, and even coma. These symptoms can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.

How common is deadly nightshade in the UK?

Deadly nightshade is not very common in the UK, but it can be found in certain parts of the country, particularly in woodland areas and hedgerows. It is classified as an invasive species, meaning that it is not native to the UK but has been brought over from other parts of the world.

How deadly is deadly nightshade?

Deadly nightshade is extremely toxic and can be lethal in small doses. All parts of the plant contain toxic alkaloids, with the highest concentration found in the berries. Ingesting just a few berries can be fatal, particularly in children. It is important to avoid handling or ingesting any part of the plant and to seek medical attention immediately if exposure occurs.

Does deadly nightshade grow in the UK?

Yes, deadly nightshade does grow in the UK, although it is not very common. It is mostly found in the southern and eastern parts of the country, particularly in woodland areas and hedgerows.

What to do if touched deadly nightshade?

If you come into contact with deadly nightshade, it is important to wash the affected area with soap and water immediately. If you experience any symptoms such as skin irritation or an allergic reaction, seek medical attention. It is best to avoid touching the plant altogether and to wear gloves if handling it is necessary.

Can Deadly nightshade be composted?

Yes, deadly nightshade along with many other toxic plants can be composted. The toxins contained in the plant will break down during the composting process.


Author

Trevor Wright is not just a seasoned horticulturist; he’s the esteemed Garden Doctor. With a BSc in Horticulture and years of hands-on experience in the soil, Trevor has become a trusted mentor for all things gardening. As the founder of Garden Doctor, he’s committed to clarifying the intricacies of gardening, offering straightforward advice that’s rooted in years of practice. His writing is a garden of how-tos, savvy insights, and comprehensive guides that enable individuals to nurture and grow their garden dreams. When he’s not knee-deep in garden beds, Trevor is at his keyboard passing on his green-thumbed wisdom to budding gardeners, ensuring that the legacy of sustainable and joyful gardening blossoms far and wide.


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