Wednesday, 1 December 2010

(3) Therapeutic Profile: Henbane - Hyoscyamus niger

Henbane - Hyoscyamus niger

Hyoscyamus niger, otherwise known as Henbane, Stinking Nightshade or Black Henbane, is a plant of the Solanaceae family. It originated in Eurasia, though it is now globally distributed. Other members of the Solanaceae family are Potato, Tobacco, Tomato and Belladonna.

Its name dates at least back to 1265. The origins of the word are unclear but "hen" probably originally meant death rather than referring to chickens.
The herb is also called Hog's-bean, and both its botanical name Hyoscyamus and the tenth-century Jusquiasmus are derived from the Greek words hyos and cyamos, signifying 'the bean of the hog', which animal is supposed to eat it with impurity. An old AngloSaxon name for it was "Belene", probably from the bell-shaped flowers; then it became knwon as "Hen-bell", and from the time that its poisonous properties were recognised this name was changed to "Henbane", because the seeds were thought to be fatal to poultry. Dr. Prior is inclined to think that the name Henbane is derived from the Spanish hinna (a mule), e.g. "henna bell", referring to the similiarity of its seed-vessel to the bell hung upon the neck of the mules.


The medicinal uses of Henbane date from remote ages; it was well known to the Ancients, being particularly commended by Dioscorides (first century A.D.), who used it to procure sleep and allay pains. Celsus and others, in the same period, made use of it for the same purpose, internally and externally, though Pliny declared it to be 'of the nature of wine and therefore offensive to the understanding'. There is mention of it in a work by Benedictus Crispus (A.D. 681) under the names of Hyoscyamus and Symphonica. In the tenth century, we again find its virtues recorded under the name of Jusquiasmus (the modern French name is Jusquiame). There is frequent mention made of it in AngloSaxon works on medicine of the eleventh century, in which it is named 'Henbell', and in the old glossaries of those days it also appears as Caniculata, Cassilago and Deus Caballinus.

Later it fell into disuse. It was omitted from the London Pharmacopoeia of 1746 and 1788, and only restored in 1809, its re-introduction being chiefly due to experiments and recommendations by Baron Storch, who gave it in the form of an extract, in cases of epilepsy and other nervous and convulsive diseases.

The herb was used in magic and diabolism, for its power of throwing its victims into convulsions. It was employed by witches in their midnight brews, and from the leaves was prepared a famous sorcerer's ointment.

Anodyne necklaces were made from the root and were hung about the necks of children as charms to prevent fits and to cause easy teething.

Medicinal Properties

Henbane was historically used in combination with other plants, such as mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura as an anaesthetic potion, as well as for its psychoactive properties in "magic brews". These psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight.
Its usage was originally in continental Europe, Asia and the Arabic world, though it did spread to England in the Middle Ages. The use of Henbane by the ancient Greeks was documented by Pliny the Elder. The plant, recorded as Herba apollinaris, was used to yield oracles by the priestesses of Apollo.
Hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other tropane alkaloids have been found in the foliage and seeds of the plant. Common effects of Henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia - increased heart rate, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia - a fever with an extreme elevation of body temperature greater than or equal to 41.5 degrees C, and ataxia - gross lack of coordination of muscle movements, have all been noted. Even in low does, Henbane is be toxic and can even be fatal.

Historically it was sometimes one of the ingredients in gruit, traditionally used in beers as a flavouring, until replaced by hops in the 11th to 16th centuries (for example, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 outlawed ingredients other than bareley, hops, and water).

Misidentification can sometimes be an issue with Henbane, such as, in 2008 celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson recommended Henbane as a "tasty addition to salads" in the August 2008 issue of Healthy and Organic Living magazine. He subsequently said that he had made an error, confusing the herb with Fat Hen, a member of the spinach family. He apologised, and the magazine sent subscribers an urgent message stating that Henbane "is a very toxic plant and should never be eaten".

Toxic Properties

It is poisonous in all its parts, and neither drying nor boiling destroys the toxic principle. The leaves are the most powerful portion, even the odour of them when fresh will produce giddiness and stupor. Accidental cases of poisoning by Henbane are, however, not very common, as the plant has too unpleasant a taste and smell to be readily mistaken for any esculent vegetable, but its roots, which are thick and somewhat like those of salsafy, have sometimes been gathered and eaten. In one case recorded, a woman pulled up a quantity of Henbane roots which she found in a field, supposing them to be parsnips. She boiled them in soup, which was eaten by the family. The whole of the nine persons who had partaken of them suffered severely, being soon seized with indistinctness of vision, giddiness and sleepiness, followed by delirium and convulsions.

It is also recorded that the whole of the inmates of a monastery were once poisoned by using the roots instead of chicory. The monks partaking of the roots for supper were all more or less affected during the night and following day, being attacked with a sort of delirious frenzy, accompanied in many cases by such hallucinations that the establishment resembled a lunatic asylum.

Seed Handling

Henbane seeds are small and black, as the above image indicates.

Once you've filled a suitable container with the compost of choice, scatter the Henbane seeds across the compost as they are too small to place individually. Once complete, lightly cover the seeds with compost and leave to germinate.
To increase germination rates sow the seed mid-winter or early spring to subject seed to cold moist conditioning or chill in wet sand for 2 weeks before sowing. Then it should germinate in 2 weeks. Plant in light, well drained soil. Full sun to part shade, prefers more shade in warmer climates.

Potential Uses in Green Pharmacy Preparations

Henbane is listed in the Schedule III poisons category of "medicinal" plants, and therefore constitute Practitioner Only Medicines (POM). Henbane may not be used in Green Pharmacy preparations.