our Better Nature Home
belladonna drawing.  WIkimedia Commons.  

Even though the berries are pretty and sweet, they can kill you. More....

printer friendly page
- by E. A. Zimmerman

Organic and all natural are often, but not always, good for you.  Some innocuous looking plants like Belladonna can kill you.

Atropa belladonna.  Wikimedia commons photo.

Belladona - Wikimedia Commons photo.
Various toxic plants commonly called Nightshade look sort of like tomato plants. Belladonna has dull reddish-purple or greenish-purple, bell-shaped flowers. The glossy, purple-black berries mature in September. Climbing Nightshade has small, star-shaped purple flowers with petals that bend backwards and a bright yellow center, and egg shaped berries that turn bright red when ripe. Hairy Nightshade also has star-shaped flowers that are white with a bright yellow center, and berries that are red, orange or yellow. Many native and exotic plants may cause mild irritation to serious illness when consumed. As a general rule, never eat a plant you are not absolutely sure is useful as food.

This deadly herb’s scientific name is Atropa belladonna.  Atropa comes from the Greek Atropos, one of the three Greek goddesses called the Fates.  Atropa wielded dreaded shears used to cut the thread of life for each mortal.  “Bella donna” is Italian for “beautiful lady.”  (There is also apparently a porn star named Belladonna, so beware when Googling.)   During the Renaissance, Italian women put drops made from Belladonna in their eyes. The drops made their pupils dilate, which they believed made them more alluring.  It turns out they were right.  Human pupils not only dilate when lights are low, but also in response to arousal.  Dr. Eckhard Hess, a psychology researcher, did an experiment where subjects were shown two almost identical pictures of the opposite sex.  They were asked to pick which was more attractive.  The only difference between the two pictures was pupil size.  Subjects were twice as likely to pick the photo with larger pupils, even when they could not spot the difference.

Belladonna’s power stems from an alkaloid called Atropine.  Atropine is found in every part of the plant, including the leaves, roots and fruit.  Unfortunately the shiny black berries are pretty and have a sweetish taste, and thus can tempt children.  Eating just two to five berries could kill a child; ten to twenty berries or a single leaf could prove lethal for an adult.   A bad rule of thumb about wild plants is “if animals eat it, it must be safe for human consumption.”  Some sources claim that rabbits and slugs can chow on Belladonna with no ill effects.  However, when other forms of livestock like pigs eat Belladonna, it can make them very ill or kill them.

Typical symptoms of Belladonna poisoning are “red as a beet, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, hot as a hare and mad as a hatter” since atropine causes flushing, loss of vision, decreasing tearing and salivation, fever, delirium and extremely dissociative hallucinations, as well as convulsions.   Europeans knew about the toxic effects of Belladonna.  Because tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family of plants (Solanaceae) some were afraid to eat these vegetables from the New World. 

Despite its toxicity, Belladonna has been cultivated for medicinal purposes for centuries.  Atropine drops are used to dilate pupils for eye exams or operations.  It is also used in a variety of medications.  Atropine has been used to reduce tremors and rigidity in people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  Since it potentially lethal, it should be used with extreme caution and only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.   Oddly, poison can be used to treat poison.  Atropine can counteract the effects of organophosphate pesticides and nerve gases like Sarin.  So Belladonna is not all bad.

The good news is that Belladonna is not found in CT, according to the USDA Plants Database.  It is in nearby New York and New Jersey.  Some other plants of the same family, like Hairy Nightshade (Solanum villosum) and Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) are found in CT.  They are also toxic. Researchers are testing an extract of Hairy Nightshade berries to kill mosquito larvae.

Nightshades are notorious for invading disturbed land, especially moist, fertile farmland.  Animals should be kept away from fields with heavy infestations of Nightshade.    If you suspect a person has eaten a toxic plant, remove any plant parts from their mouth, and immediately call the Poison Control Center  (800.222.1222 in CT), your local hospital, or local police department (911) and follow their instructions.



Originally published in the Villager newspapers on September 4, 2009


Fun kids games and activities
Fun Kids Games!

grief, illness, caregiver
Love, Loss & Gratitude

  Our Better Nature

HOME | Site Map | Contact | Contact webmaster about text link ad placement

If you experience problems with the website/find broken links/have suggestions/corrections, please contact me!
The purpose of this site is to share information with anyone interested in environmental protection.
Feel free to link to it, or to print hard copies for personal or educational purposes (see permissions) with a citation for the author. I have no responsibility or input on articles written by other authors.
No permission is granted for any commercial use or reproduction online.
Appearance of ads on this site does not constitute endorsement of any of those services or products!
If you are interested in placing text links or other ads on this site, contact the webmaster.
©2007 Chimalis. Original photographs are copyrighted, and may not be used without the permission of the photographer.
See disclaimer, necessitated by today's sadly litigious world.
Last updated October 25, 2016

HOME | Conservation | Open Space and the Outdoors | Pollution Prevention | Wildlife | Contact | Search