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.


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