Sunday, 23 January 2011

Chain Bridge Honey Farm

Today's class was a lot easier on the brain than last week's by far! Catherine was ill with the flu, and so, after taking our slips with our emergency contact numbers on them, we were allowed to venture out alone.

After a rather fit full minibus journey across the border, several miles south of Berwick upon Tweed, we arrived at a small farm holding - a place that time seemed to have collected in. Surrounding the collection of understated buildings, was a collection of machinery and vehicles from years gone past... parked alongside the sleek black delivery van was a dark green, rather worn-looking, double decker bus advertising its use as a cafe... next to that was a rather large piece of farming machinery painted bright orange clearly named "Little Geordie", and we had passed by two red double decker buses advertising their final destination as "Picadilly Circus"... it appears they became slightly lost over the years.

Margaret had been voted group leader, a point I was keen to remind her of, as we all stretched out of the minibus and made our way toward, what appeared to be, the main building. As we trudged through the silent buildings a young woman appeared, clad in a white lab coat and hygiene white hat, she greeted us - Heather was one of Willie S Robson's daughters (the owner) and would be showing us around later.

As Heather went to notify Willie of our arrival and to make tea on mass, we were left to wander around the little shop, full of honey in various forms, honey mustard - a local recipe, propolis, beeswax in blocks, tapers and other various forms, and cosmetic products such as ointments, creams and lipbalms.

There was also a viewing hive in this area, glass covering one wall so you could see how the hive was arrange, where the queen stayed and how the bees behaved generally. We peered into the hive before it was covered back up so as to maintain the heat the bees had worked hard to gather.
The other walls were covered in educational posers, discussing how the bees see to the phenomenon of "bee beards", the idea of swarms to honey and its related products.

Heather re-appeared with tea before we moved through to the office with Willie. In true tutorial fashion we sat in a semi-circle, Willie in prime position in front of us, answering the barrage of questions and in his own time and way, explaining the history of bees and bee-keeping. The knowledge of bee-keeping it seems it passed down the generations, directly from father to son, and in this way is one of the true forms of family business remaining. Willie barely employs anyone external from his own family, as he insists that bee keepers are to live and work on the same premises and within the same area as the bees. Hence why we met his wife, two daughters and glimpsed at his son during the day, all deep within their own tasks in the business.
Willie thinks bee, he has grown up and cared for the hives all his life, working with the bees is a natural state for him, their concerns are his concerns.

He speaks in a slow, haltering fashion, his mind flickering back and forth over a range of topics, finding his tangents and storming along the path before realising that wasn't exactly the point he'd been originally making.

The all black honey bee, Apis mellifera, is the variety that Willie keeps within his hives, he's never used any imports and he doesn't export his bees. Depending on where the hives are, the bees attune to that environment, moving the hives too far or seriously altering the external environment of the hives, can cause mass death within the bee population. When moving the hives, Willie prefers to do it very late at night or very early in the morning, when the large majority of the bees will be in the hive - Willie's hives have a summer and winter location; in the winter they're sheltered from the harshness of the Scottish winter where possible and in the summer, they are moved to local farmers land to help pollinate the area.

The Californian industry of honey-making is highly damaging to the bees, and Willie clearly feels deeply about the subject. The idea of exporting or using imported bees is just not considered, imported bees aren't used to this environment he states, mixing the gene pool is good to a degree, but they can lose immunities to diseases this way, such as the ability to groom each other which can stop the bee-disease varroa spreading.

Varroa Mite and Varroa on a Pupal

Varroa was brought into the country with an import of bees, the breed Apis mellifera aren't adapted to this disease, and it has killed thousands. The disease was first discovered in Southeast Asia around 1904, and was identified in the UK in 1992. Varroa is a genus of parasitic mites, that feed off the bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval honey bees, similar to other parasites they can carry other diseases that are particularly damaging to the bees e.g. deformed wings. They have accordingly been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder - a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive abruptly disappear. There have only been a couple of other diseases that have wiped out bee populations in such numbers before, an example is the "Isle of Wight" disease that caused a mass wipe-out during the World Wars.

The survival of such diseases within the beehive is impressive, as a beehive is known to be one of the most hygienic places on earth. Propolis is a resinous mixture that the honey bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, or other botanical sources. It is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the hive, it is used for small gaps, approximately 6mm or less, whereas bigger gaps are filled with beeswax. It is commonly a dark brown colour, easily identifiable from the honey, however the colour can differ slightly depending on its original botanical source.
Originally beekeepers assumed propolis was just used to protect the colony against the elements, however 20th century research has shown that propolis is actually believed to:
  • Reinforce the structural stability of the hive
  • Reduce vibration
  • Make the hive more defensible by sealing alternative entrances
  • Prevent diseases and parasites from entering the hive, and to inhibit bacterial growth
  • Prevent putrefaction within the hive. Bee's usually carry waste out of and away from the hive. However if a small lizard or mouse, for example, found its way into the hive and died there, bees may be unable to carry it out through the hive entrance. In that case, they would attempt instead to seal the carcass in propolis, essentially mummifying it and making it odourless and harmless.
As Herbology students we are interested most in the idea that propolis can inhibit bacterial growth. In Herbal Medicine the use of propolis isn't uncommon in the relief of various conditions, including inflammations, viral diseases, ulcers, and superficial burns or scalds. Propolis is also believed to promote heart health, strengthen the immune system and reduce the chances of cataracts, it is also used to aid sore throats and lozenges can be bought widely.

Depending on the chemical composition of the propolis, which varies dependent on country and season, published scientific research has proven that propolis: is a powerful local antibiotic, with antifungal and antimicrobial properties; is an effective emollient and useful for treating skin burns; exhibits immunomodulatory effects; is being researched as an antitumour growth agent in Japan; and it actively protects against dental caries and other forms of oral disease.

As for the honey, Willie uses traditional cutting and extraction methods, the honey isn't heated, or if it is, very very minimally, as this alters the taste and in terms of Chain Bridge Honey, ruins it. Heather showed us around the new factory, where Frances, her sister, was working on bottling the honey. There is no wastage in the factory, a phenomenon in itself within the food industry. The botanicals the bees have been collecting nectar from to make the honey alters the overall taste of the honey made, making flower-based honey taste different from heather-based honey.
The FSA, Food Standards Agency, demands that all food products have best before/display until dates, and so this had caused debate. Frances gave the honey an 18 month sell by date, however, honey has an ability to last for years. The debate came about as the honey would be made and stored in the hive for an unmeasurable amount of time, before removed and stored in containers, then finally bottled and put forward for sale - was this time to be included or excluded from the sell by dating?

Supermarkets produce and sell "runny honey" which has the ability to remain runny for several years without crystallisation, this suggests that the honey has been overheated during production, ruining the chemical composition, losing any beneficial properties the honey has, and ruining the taste.

Heather ended our grand tour by taking us to the lotions and potions room, where they created the candles, ointments, lotions, lipbalms and soaps that were sold in the shop. It was yet another room, kept cool to benefit the honey and wax, with a collection of machinery, gathered from different countries and different times. Even though Willie doesn't help to make the cosmetic products he still has an overall say about how he wants them to appear, or how he would prefer them to be made, for example, adding the honey at the very end of the procedure when making a cream so as to give it as minimal heat as possible.
The major problem Heather faces is the rules and packaging surrounding cosmetics, honey is known to be beneficial to health and other factors, however this cannot be advertised on a cosmetic without testing having been completed on the entire product. So a cream that is useful to soothe dry skin cannot be stated to do so without relevant scientific proof and certificates, as dry skin could refer to eczema, which is a medical condition. The rules are rigid and irritating to argue your way around, its a constant flow of money out to find or even originally prove that one product can be used on "dry skin", is that cost effective?

The trip was relaxing in comparison with the past few weeks of intense brain work, and an eye-opener into the world of bees, honey, cosmetics and the legalisation problems company's face.

Plant Chemistry

David Pirie a lecturer from Napier university had come in as a guest lecturer to RBGE, for the first class of the new semester and the New Year, to discuss with us the long, complex and sometimes rather questionable chemistry of plants.

We didn't look at the extreme levels of chemistry involved as they are far too complex and each small segment would require hours of explanation before the next link in the chain could be added and examined.

What is the chemistry of plants? According to scientists, the chemistry of plants is the be all and end all of what a plant is and will be. There is no more. Is this true? What goes beyond the boundaries of science?
In indigenous tribes, the scientific chemistry of plants is not known, the spiritual healer treats a patient through an identification of a mis-match in their vibrational energy, and in turn finds the correct vibrational energy in a botanical to put their body back in tune. Knowledge of which herbal medicine to use, how to use it, what its for - is all passed down through ancient knowledge and tradition. This process is older than the indepth examination of the active components of plants, and therefore should be taken into consideration. However, there is no scientific evaluation of exactly what's going on within the body, how each component within the plant is acting, and therefore there is no table of results - each patient is different, and because of that there is a value of doubt as to whether the herbal medicine will work or not, or whether there will be any adverse effects.

So what does the knowledge of the chemistry of plants do? It helps us identify what plants to use and what not to use. How the plant interacts within the body and how it involves itself withint the cells, how the plant breaks down within the body, how it subsequently moves through the system and its resulting half life - this in turn gives us the information we need to apply the correct dosage.

William Withering, a 19th century, English physician, used alcoholic tinctures of Digitalis, the foxglove, to help cure a failing heart. Without the scientific proof that Digitalis could work, or that it is now classified as poisonous, Withering used the drug. Using the whole leaf he made an alcoholic tincture, which he gave his patients in small controlled doses - he would give the tincture daily, slowly increasing the dose until the patient would be physically sick or on the verge of. This is the first symptom displayed by the body showing that the dose has become too high and has therefore become toxic to the body. Once this point has been reached that is the dose that is specific for that particular patient.
The sub-emetic dose, the dose that causes nausea, will reduce as the patient gets better - the body proves it needs less of the herbal remedy as the situation improves.

In Herbal Medicine many lifestyle details are required as lifestyle can vary the remedy and therefore vary the dose of herbal medicine needed.

St John's Wort

St John's Wort is a good example for why knowing the chemistry of plants is useful in Herbal Medicine, as mixing pharmaceutical medicine with herbal medicines can be dangerous.
Serotonin, known as the "Happiness Hormone", is one of the body's natural mood levelers. During periods of depression, patients may be prescribed anti-depressants, these are normally a form of serotonin booster e.g. SSRI's (selective serotonin reactive inhibitors) - however a herbal variety of a serotonin booster is St John's Wort. If over the counter St John's Wort supplements (which are usually 50% stronger) are mixed with anti-depressants, this can cause what is generally referred to as "Serotonin Symptom" - an overdose of serotonin essentially, which causes too much stimulation, the patient becomes manic - with heart palpitations, dilated pupils etc, this can eventually lead to a heart-attack.

Robbie Williams was known to have said that his "brain swims in serotonin" - when he was younger he used to consume ecstasy, which causes momentary serotonin "highs", however, the high is so extreme that a huge depression follows (similar to bi-polar disorder).

One note with St John's Wort is to not consume supplements with the contraceptive pill. St John's Wort has the ability to speed up the chemical pathway in the liver - which is involved in the breakdown of drugs - making the drug(s) taken less effective. It would also mean that drugs of a narrow theurapeutic range - ones that are very dose specific - have an increased secretion rate from the body, reducing their overall effect. However evidence has proven that this side-effect is only caused when specific elements of St John's Wort are taken seperately from each other, hypericin is the most abundant chemical in St John's Wort - it effects the serotonin levels in the brain and increases liver function, however hyperforin, the next most abundant chemical in St John's Wort - effects other neurotransmitters and enzymatic pathways in the liver, decreasing the speed of the overall process. Proving that the consumption of the whole plant has a neutral effect on the liver - and has been routinely prescribed in Germany, and there has been no record of pregnancy when consumed with the contraceptive pill.

The whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.

Proven in the case of diuretics, which force the kidneys to expel more water, which causes a potassium loss, which is needed throughout the body. Dandelion and Nettle are strong diuretics, however, they are high in potassium so as to equalise their effect.

A knowledge of chemistry also helps to decide how to take a Herbal Medicine and in what form. Certain chemicals have an affinity for specific substances - water, oil, alcohol - how should we make our medicines? What base should be used?
Callendula resins are extracted poorly in water, however, well in alcohol (90%).
Comfrey leaf (which is high in carbohydrate) is extracted poorly in high alcohol, so using a 25% alcohol to 75% water base works best.
The 19th century medics drew on Greek knowledge, Culpepper, North American influences, and the scientific knowledge of the day to make their herbal remedies - one said (Thurston): "use 45% alcohol all the time as it is the optimum for the whole plant".

The problem with scientific analysis of herbal plants, botanicals can get banned from use because the most abundant chemical within the plant is seen as dangerous - this is a limited view, as in herbal medicine the whole plant is used, not the chemical constituents. The root "cara cara" has been banned from use (as have others), the most abundant chemical constituent was purified and tested on rats, there was a high percentage of deaths, which means no human testing was done - the reason for the deaths was linked to liver failure. The whole plant was then labelled toxic not the individual chemical constituent, which stops its usage within herbal medicines - when extracted in water and added to coconut milk (as its lipophylic), the root has a mild, physical calming effect, and more importantly, its non-toxic.

Primary Metabolites are essential for plant life.
Secondary Metabolites are extra chemicals that the plant creates for its own use, and in turn for ours, however they are not essential.

In basic photosynthesis, hundreds of chemicals are used and made, not all of which are necessary for the plants survival.

Primary Metabolites are necessary for basic survival and propagation - anabolic and catabolic pathways, assimilation, respiration, transportation, differentiation. They are common to all plants - phytosterols, acyl lipids, nucleotides, amino acids, organic acids etc.
Secondary Metabolites are less essential by products of the primary metabolites. Energy usage is critical to a plant, excessive usage can be detrimental, so why does the plant produce non-essential chemicals? The secondary metabolites are diverse within the plant kingdom (concept from Kossel 1891), they are what gives the plant colour, flavour and smell. We use them as phytomedicines, drugs, insecticides, dyes, flavourings and fragrances.
Plants used secondary metabolites as a defence against pathogens and predators - bacteriocidal, repellent, poisonous, colourful, warning etc, as an attraction to encourage fertilisation and dissemination, signalling function through plant hormones, protection against the environment e.g. free radicals, UV light etc.

Nettles produce a secondary metabolite called formic acid, which they use as a protective substance in their sting (stinging ants alos produce this substance) - dead nettles pretend to be stinging nettles for protection.

The oak gall is a form of protection for the oak, resin based it is anti-bacteriral and used to stop infection if the tree sustains a wound.

The passion flower produces secondary metabolites that produce its attractive colouring, the plant also produces alkaloids that in a herbal medicine have an effect on the nervous system, helping to calm it and it aids sleep.

Other botanicals have been known to create fake "caterpillars", and speckle their leaves with white spots so that it appears that to other butterflies that this plant is already full of developing larvae.

Secondary metabolites: acids, carbohydrates, glycosides, isoprenoids and terpenes, phenols, amines and rubber polymers.

Acids are found widely in the plant kingdom, usually very weak chemical structure, they have a particularly sour taste and become alkaline after ingestion; they are generally cleansing to toxic states, anti-septic, however they can irritate. Examples are: formic acid, acetic, citric and oxalic, found in rhubarb. Essential fatty acids are also another form of acid, the reason they're called "essential" is because our bodies cannot manufacture the fatty acids. Acids can also correct mis-balances of oils in the body, displayed through inflammation.
In the diet, the consumption of vegetable and sunflower oils should be decreased, while fish, hemp, flaxseed and evening primrose oil should be increased as the oils are lighter. Olive oil is a more stable oil and is better to fry foods with.

Carbohydrates are made of sugar molecules: mono, di and poly. They are mucilagenous, demulcent and emollient e.g. comfrey, slippery elm and marshmallow. They reduce inflammations, especially in ecto-based cells such as the GIT (gastro-intestinal tract), lungs and the urinary tract - all of which have very soft, absorbant linings and therefore have similar reactions. Carbohydrates are also used in modern cancer treatments in the form of immuno-stimulating echinacea, calendula and daisy. They also provide pectin and fibres to the body.

Phenols are based around phenol rings, there are thousands of these - they are a very diverse range of molecules. Phenols includes: salicylic acid (found in the inner bark of willow trees and meadowsweet), tannins, coumarins, flavonoids, anthaquinones (found in botanicals such as rhubarb and dock - causes a laxative action, similar to aloe vera), they are the base for flower and fruit pigments and found within many families. Phenols have many medicinal properties i.e. cardiovascular, antioxidants, antiseptic. The salicylic acid found in willow, birch and meadowsweet (mainly the leaf and flower) are anti-pyritic and anti-inflammatory which can help with ailments such as arthritis. Phenols are also analgesic - some of the by-properties of aspirin are that it irritates the digestive tract, whereas herbal remedies don't. On a spiritual level, it is said that if you're stiff and stuck in a rut, you should take willow as it will help move you along.

Tannins are precipitating proteins, they astringe, bind and heal inflamed tissues. They are mildly antiseptic, they can form eschar's (a new skin layer over external or internal (ulcers) wounds to allow for healing). They can be found most concentrated in bark and dead plant parts - tea, oak bark (external bark), witch hazel (do not take internally) and within the rose family (hawthorn, agrimony), however, there can be problems with absorption of foods in the GIT with overuse e.g. strong black tea causes mucus membranes in mouth to curl up and bind together, a pucker effect, this has the same effect in the GIT, however adding milk to tea reduces the effect of the tannins. Tannins are well known for binding proteins to create leather.

Anthraquinones stimulate peristalsis in the GIT, they are also used as dyes - yellow dock (mildly stimulating in the liver), aloe vera, rhubarb root, senna pods (cassia). They are usually given with carminatives (celery seed etc), they take around 10 hours to have an effect. If the faeces become "stuck" in the GIT, it can cause constipation, which is when re-absorption of water and toxins happens within the GIT as long as the faeces remains there, this can lead to a toxic overload, and if the GIT muscles are over-stimulated this can lead to them "knackering out". Consuming herbs high in anthraquinones when pregnant is not recommended, as these herbs are downward stimulating.

Volatie Oils are chemically structurally based on isoprene C5H8 group. Volatile oils are responsible for plant fragrance, they are generally responsible for affecting mood, either stimulating (rosemary) or sedating (valerian). They are antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal (e.g. sage), can irritate internally and externally, they dissipate readily and are used extensively in aromatherapy.
Saponins are soapy when put into water, such as soapwort, they are regarded as having a subtle sweet taste, and have been used as arrow poisons in the past because of their ability to cause lysis of the red blood cells. Saponins are structurally closely related to cholesterol, steroids, hormones, vitamin D, hormonal balancers (e.g. wild yam) and hormonal contraceptives. They are also anti-inflammatory (liquorice) and are used as immune tonics (astragalus), and in traditional chinese medicine they are used within "King Remedies" (ginseng). Saponins are broken down within the GIT to make them non-toxic.

Red clover - pea family - is soapy when put in water. It has a estrogenic effect in the body, there are therefore potential problems with breast cancer (in patients it has been noted that this usually shows higher levels of estrogen). However in a herbal remedy, it has shown that it can be good in both excessive and deficiency states, as it provides a weaker estrogen which, in excessive states, will bind to estrogen receptors and stop stronger estrogen binding, whereas in deficiency states it provides general estrogen levels to the body.

Glycosides are made up of sugar molecules and active components, such as cyanogenic glycosides, cardiac glycosides, saponins, flavones, tannins, anthraquinones etc. They are found in many families, sometimes poisonous, and have many differing medicinal properties depending on the active components. Cardiac glycosides are derived from foxgloves (no longer used), lily of the valley, limeflower and hawthorn. They are negatively chronotonic and positively contractually - making them great aids for the heart.

There have been over 3000+ Alkaloids identified, they have nitrogen groups and are often poisonous. They are found in the Solanaceae family, legumes, rubiaceae and fungi. They effect the nervous system, similar to caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, morphine, quinine and ephedrine - ephidra is not good for the heart, but is used for coughs and asthma. They stimulate the central nervous system activating a mini fight and flight mood, they also cause broncho-dilation which makes the patient feel alert, awake and providing significantly more blood to the muscles.
Tropane alkaloids occur predominantly in Solanaceae family members, in the components hyoscyamine and atropine, in such botanicals as Datura, Atropa belladonna and Hyoscyamus. Some of the post-ingestion symptoms may include: reduce salivary and sweat secretions, spasmolytic, seduce motor activity in GIT, menstrual cramps, anticholinergic, para-sympathetic depressant.

The White Poppy is the most potent.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is a lot more tied in than just problem and solution.

In TCM, organ problems are related to elements, to seasons, to emotion and to taste, they're also inter-related in a family-like chain.
Hence why in family meals, there are meals related to each of the five tastes noted in TCM, this is to make sure each member of the family has a balanced meal, and therefore is in good health.

The five tastes are: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and pungent - astringent can also be seen as a sixth taste.

Sweet tastes are found in cereals, peas, cooked root vegetables and fruit. They provide carbohydrates and saponins to the body. Sweet tastes relate to the spleen, providing a cooling quality; they are also linked with the earth and so therefore provide nourishment to the body and soul, they are used to tonify and balance. They aid the heart, however in excess can damage the kidneys.

Salty tastes are found in seaweeds. Mineral tastes are also included within nettles and horsetail. They relate to the kidneys, providing a heating quality. Salty tastes moisten and soften by drawing water to them and are therefore good for swellings and tumours. They assist the kidneys, however in excess can damage the heart.

Bitter tastes are found in dandelion root and yellow dock, for example, they provide the body with alkaloids, volatile oils and phenols. In TCM bitter tastes are related to anger, they effect the heart primarily, but also have an effect on the liver, heating it up, which circles back to helping the heart and providing a cooling quality. Bitter tastes are used to sedate, dry and harden; they stimulate digestive secretion, by overall aiding the liver and digestive tract. However in excess they can damage the lungs.

Sour tastes, found, for example, in yarrow, provide the body with acids and tannins. They aid the liver, providing a heating quality. They are used for absorbing and binding, making them good for discharges, inconsistency, perspiration and loss of fluid through premature ejaculation and excessive menstruation. They help to tonify the lungs, however, in excess can damage the spleen.

Pungent tastes are found in hot spices, they help to open pores and vessels. They aid digestion, providing a heating quality. They help to dispense and liquefy (esp. hot curries), they are often used to treat colds by encouraging the production and movement of phlegm, they are also usually anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-septic. They are used to aid the liver but in excess can also damage the liver.

Even from the base description of the five tastes, you can see that each interlinks, what can damage one will be aided by another.

With this, David, over-viewed the hefty topic of plant chemistry, delving briefly into the depths, and concluding on the mind-tangling traditional Chinese herbal medicine, with its own history and style.

Linking Botanicals - Latin names, Common names, Parts used and main constituent.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

(2) Physic Garden Profile: Atropa belladonna

The Physic Garden Profile will discuss why Atropa belladonna deserved a place in Physic Gardens past, why it deserves a place in current Physic Gardens and why it will still deserve a place in future Physic Gardens.

Atropa belladonna

Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the family Solanaceae. It is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, however the plant is not common in England or Scotland, and has become rarer of later years.

The first botanical description was by Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753. It is in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which it shares with potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, jimsonweed, tobacco, wolfberry and chili peppers. The common names for this species, as previously mentioned, include Belladonna and deadly nightshade, as well as divale, dwale, banewort, devil's cherries, naughty man's cherries, black cherry, devil's herb, great morel, and dwayberry. The plant in Chaucer's dyas were known as Dwale, which Dr. J. A. H. Murray considers was probably derived from the Scandinavian dool, meaning delay or sleep. Other authorities have derived the word from the French deuil (grief), a reference to its fatal properties.

Belladonna grows to around 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) tall with long ovate leaves. The bell-shaped flowers are tyrian purple with green tinges and are faintly scented. The fruits are berries, which are green ripening to a shiny black, and approximately 1cm in diameter. The berries are sweet and are consumed by animals that disperse the seeds in their faeces - the toxicity of the seeds varies on maturity of the fruit, and they appear to have varying effects depending on the species.
There is a pale yellow flowering form called Atropa belladonna var. lutea with pale yellowing fruit.

The fresh plant, when crushed, exhales a disagreeable odour, almost disappearing on drying, and the leaves have a bitter taste, when both fresh and dry.

Atropa belladonna is rarely used in gardens, but when grown it is usually for its large upright habit and showy berries. It is naturalised in parts of North America, where it is often found in shady, moist locations with limestone-rich soils. It is considered a weed species in parts of the world, where is colonises areas with disturbed soils. Germination of the small seeds is often difficult, due to hard seed coats that cause seed dormancy. Germination takes several weeks under alternating temperature conditions but can sped up with the use of gibberellic acid. The seedlings need sterile soil to prevent damping off and resent root disturbance during transplanting.

The History of Atropa belladonna

There are folklore and history surrounding Belladonna, first off is the basis of the plants name; the name Atropa, is thought to be derived from the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Greek Fates, who would determine the course of a man's life by the weaving of threads that symbolised their birth, the events in their life and finally their death. Atropos was the Fate who cut the threads to end a man's life. The name "belladonna" comes from the Italian, "bella donna" translating to mean "beautiful ladies", originating either from its usage as a cosmetic for the face, or, more probably, from its usage as an eye-drop to increase the pupil size in ladies - especially "ladies of the night", as the increased pupil size signified excitement.

Due to Belladonna's toxic properties, the botanical has a history of use as a poison. The Ancient Romans were those that used the plant as a poison, with examples being the wives of both Emperor Augustus and Claudius using it to murder contemporaries. Predating the Romans, it was used to make poison-tipped arrows.

Belladonna is supposed to have been the plant that poisoned the troops of Marcus Antonius during the Parthian wars. Plutarch gives a graphic account of the strange effects that followed its use.

Buchanan relates in his History of Scotland (1582) a tradition that when Duncan I was King of Scotland, the soldiers of Macbeth poisoned a whole army of invading Danes by a liquor mixed with an infusion of Dwale supplied to them during a truce. Suspecting nothing, the invaders drank deeply and were easily overpowered and murdered in their sleep by the Scots.

Belladonna is often confused in the public mind with dulcamara (Bittersweet), possibly because it bears the popular name of woody nightshade. The cultivation of Belladoona in England dates at least from the sixteenth century, for Lyte says, in the Niewe Herball, 1578: "This herbe is found in some places of this Countrie, in woods and hedges and in the gardens of some Herboristes". Though not, however, much cultivated, it was evidently growing wild in many parts of the country when our great Herbals were written. Gerard mentions it as freely growing at Highgate, aslo at Wisbech and in Lincolnshire, and it gave a name to a Lancashire valley. Under the name of Solanum lethale, the plant was included in our early Pharmacopoeias, but it was dropped in 1788 and reintroduced in 1809 as Belladonna folia. Gerard was the first English writer to adopt the Italian name, of which he makes two words. The root was not used in medicine here until 1860, when Peter Squire recommended it as the basis of an anodyne liniment.


Before the Middle Ages, Belladonna was used as an anesthetic for surgery.

Medicinal Properties

The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include scopolamine and hyoscyamine which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations, and are also used as pharamceutical anticholinergics. The drug atropine is derived from the plant.

The medicinal properties of Belladonna depend on the presence of Hyoscyamine and Atropine. The root is the basis of the principal preparations of Belladonna.
The total alkaloid present in the root varies between 0.4 and 0.6 per cent, but as much as 1 per cent has been found, consisting of Hyoscyamine and its ismoer Atropine, 0.1 to 0.6 per cent; Belladonnine and occasionally, Atropamine. Starch and Atrosin, a red colouring principle, are also present in the root. Scopolamine (hyoscine) is also found in traces, as is a fluorescent principle similar to that found in horse-chestnut bark and widely distributed through the natural order Solanaceae. The greater portion of the alkaloidal matter consists of Hyoscyamine, and it is possible that any Atropine found is produced during extraction.

The amount of alkaloids present in the leaves varies somewhat in wild or cultivated plants, and according to the methods of drying and storing adopted, as well as on the conditions of growth, soil, weather, etc.
The proportion of the total alkaloid present in the dried leaves varies from 0.3 to 0.7 per cent. The greater proportion consists of Hyoscyamine, the Atropine being produced during extraction, as in the root. Belladonnine and Apoatropine may also be formed during extraction from the drug. The leaves contain also a trace of Scopolamine, Atrosin and starch.
The British Pharmacopoeia directs that the leaves should not contain less than 0.3 per cent of alkaloids and the root not less than 0.45 per cent.

A standardised liquied extract is prepared, from which the official plaster, alcoholic extract, liniment, suppository, tincture and ointments are made. The green extract is prepared from the fresh leaves.
Belladonna plasters are often applied, after a fall, to the injured or sprained part. A mixture of Belladonna plaster, Salicylic acid and Lead plaster is recommeneded as an application for corns and bunions.

Belladonna is used medicinally as a naroctic, diuretic, sedative, antispasmodic and mydriatic. It is also an extremely valuable plant in the treatment of eye diseases, Atropine, obtained during extraction, being its most important constituent on account of its power of dilating the pupil. Atropine will have this effect in whatever way used, whether internally, or injected under the skin, but when dropped into the eye, a much smaller quantity suffices. Scarcely any operation on the eye can be safely performed without the aid of this valuable drug. It is a strong poison, therefore the amount given interanally must be extremely minute, 1/200 to 1/100 grain.

As an antidote to Opium, Atropine may be injected subcutaneously, and it has also been used in poisoning by Calabar bean and in Chloroform poisoning. It has no action on the voluntary muscles, but the nerve endings in involuntary muscles are paralysed by large doses, the paralysis finally affecting the central nervous system, causing excitement and delirium.

The various preparations of Belladonna have many uses. Locally applied, it lessens irritability and pain, and is used as a lotion, plaster of liniment in cases of neuralgia, gout, rheumatism and sciatica. As a drug, it specially affects the brain and the bladder. It is used to check excessive secretions, to allay inflammation, to check the sweating of phthisis and other exhausting diseases.
Small doses allay cardiac palpitation, and the plaster is applied to the cardiac region for the same purpose, removing pain and distress.

Belladonna is also a powerful antispasmodic in intestinal colic and spasmodic asthma. Occasionally the leaves are employed as an ingredient of cigarettes for relieving the latter. It is well bourne by children, and is given in large doses in whooping cough and false croup. It is of value in acute sore throat, and relieves local inflammation and congestion.

For its action on the circulation, it is given in the collapse of pneumonia, typhoid fever and other acute diseases. It increases the rate of the heart by some 20 to 40 beats per minute, without diminishing its force.

Hahnemann proved that a tincture of Belladonna given in very small doses will protect from the infection of scarlet fever, and at one time Belladonna leaves were held to be curative of cancer, when applied externally as a poultice, either fresh or dried and powdered.

Toxic Properties

Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids.

The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The consumption of two to five berries by children and ten to twenty berries by adults can be lethal - the exact number depends on the maturity and subsequent toxicity of the berry consumed. The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another. Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult. As every part of the plant is extremely poisonous, neither leaves, berries, nor root should be handled if there are any cuts or abrasions on the hands.
Though so potent in its action on the human body, the plant seems to affect some of the lower animals but little. Eight pounds of the herb are said to have been eaten by a horse without causing any injury, and a donkey was noted to have swallowed one pound of the ripe berries without any bad results following. Rabbits, sheep, goats and swine eat the leaves with impunity, and birds often eat the seeds without any apparent effect, but cats and dogs are very susceptible to the poison.

The active agents in Belladonna: atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, have anticholinergic properties.

It is said that when taken by accident, the poisonous effects of Belladonna berries may be prevented by swallowing as soon as possible an emetic, such as a large glass of warm vinegar or mustard and water. In undoubted cases of this poisoning, emetics and the stomach-pump are resorted to at once, followed by a dose of magnesia, stimulants and strong coffee, the patient being kept very warm and artificial respiration being applied if necessary. A peculiar symptom in those poisoned by Belladonna is the complete loss of voice, together with frequent bending forward of the trunk and continual movements of the hands and fingers, the pupils of the eye becoming much dilated.

Atropa belladonna within the RBGE Physic Garden

Atropa belladonna has a long history for not only its toxic properties but its medicinal properties. Clearly it has been used throughout the ages for a number of ailments, and the derived drug, Atropine, is still used medicinally today.

Looking at other noted Botanical gardens, we can find evidence of Atropa belladonna within their physic gardens, examples are:
UBC Botanical Garden has photographic evidence that Atropa belladonna was part of the physic garden over 50 years ago.

Chelsa Physic Garden is a cleverly arranged display of plants which yield therapeutic compounds of proven value in current medicinal practice and are in world-wide use today, with the botanicals in question arranged according to the use of the drug derived. Atropa belladonna has been noted in its use for ENT & Lung Disease, Cardiology and Ophthalmology.

This acts as further proof that, not only has Belladonna been present in past physic gardens as a hail to its medicinal uses, but it is still praised with medicinal uses and is therefore still contained within physic gardens. In the re-design of RBGE's physic garden, I believe, and feel I have successfully proven, that Belladonna deserves a place. If not completely used with herbal medicine practises because of its toxicity rating, it can still be used by professionals, and seeing as the drug derived from the botanical is still in frequent use in the pharmaceutical industry I believe the botanical has proven itself as a note worthy character within the history of medicianl practise.
In current and future physic gardens, Belladonna, will always and remain a note worthy character in the garden. It's long history for medicinal use may not be known to the wider audience and this could help to educate more of the general public, to help them understand without the discovery of such toxic botanicals, positive steps within medicine may not have been taken. Belladonna has been contained within the RBGE physic garden in the past and I believe not re-planting the botanical would be a great loss to the garden and not hail praise to RBGE's past. It was planted for a reason the first time, the reason for its praise still exists, re-planting it should be a natural step in the development of the garden.