The Healing Powers of Deadly Nightshade – Pry House Medicinal Garden
As we exit the cold, deadly night shade of winter, what better time to relax and listen to Stevie Nicks 1981 album Bella Donna. We now turn to one of our more dangerous plants, Deadly Nightshade (atropa belladonna) of the genus Atropa which comes from the Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology.
The name belladonna is derived from Italian, meaning “beautiful woman” because it was used as eye drops by women to dilate the pupils of their eye in order to make them more seductive and beautiful. The term deadly nightshade is thought to derive from the poisonous qualities of the plant. Other non-toxic plants from the nightshade family include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, tobacco, chili peppers and jimsonweed.
Stille’s Therapeutic and Materia Medica textbook describes belladonna as having an “herbaceous stem of a purplish color, cylindrical, branched, somewhat tomentose, and three or four feet in height. The upper leaves are in pairs, the lower alternate, oval, pointed at both ends, soft, of a dark-green color above, but lighter beneath. The flowers are axillary, pedunculated and form cylindrical purple bells. They are succeeded by a berry which is at first green, then red, and when ripe, of a dark purple color, and closely resembles a cherry in appearance. It contains in two separate cells a number of kidney-shaped seeds, and its juice has a sickly sweetish taste. The root is fleshy and creeping. All parts of the plant exhale a nauseous and rank odor, and are pervaded by its narcotic principle.”
The 1858 edition of the United States Dispensatory describes the medicinal properties of belladonna as
“a powerful narcotic and anodyne, possessing also diaphoretic properties and somewhat disposed to operate on the bowels. Among its first obvious effects, when taken in the usual dose, and continued for some time, are dryness and stricture of the fauces and neighboring parts, with slight uneasiness or giddiness of the head, and dimness of vision. In medicinal doses, it may also occasion dilatation of the pupil, decided frontal headache, slight delirium, colicky pains and purging, and a scarlet efflorescence of the skin; but this last effect is rare. In large quantities, belladonna produces the most deleterious effects. It is in fact a powerful poison, and many instances are recorded in which it has been taken with fatal consequences.”
All parts of the plant are active, but the leaves are the only area of the plant recognized as official by pharmacopeias of the mid-19th century for medicinal purposes. The active ingredients of belladonna include atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. The flowers bloom from June to early September while the berries ripen to shiny black from August to October.
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Eastern Hemisphere and is rarely found in gardens. The foliage, berries and roots are extremely toxic, but the berries pose the greatest threat to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. Signs of belladonna poisoning include delirium and hallucinations.
Extract of belladonna was included in the United States Army Standard Supply Table and therefore commonly carried in field medical wagons and used in camp hospitals in the Civil War era. Belladonna could be used to treat a variety of ailments such as neuralgias, whooping cough, scarlet fever, spasmodic asthma, intestinal cramps and to dilate the pupil of the eyes. Given the common occurrence of intestinal complaints, it was frequently used as an antispasmodic to treat diarrhea. It was particularly effective in treating neuralgias such as trigeminal neuralgia and sciatica.
Sciatica is neuralgia along the course of the sciatic nerve, most often with pain radiating into the buttock and lower limb, most commonly due to herniation of a lumbar disk. A liniment or ointment would have been used in the treatment of a neuralgia.
During the Civil War, one can imagine a member of the Quartermaster Department engaged in his duty loading and unloading wagons. One day he injures himself, shows up for daily sick call and describes symptoms consistent with sciatica. The camp surgeon may have prescribed a belladonna ointment to be made by the camp’s hospital steward. The United States Dispensatory describes the recipe for compounding the ointment by mixing 1 grain (65 mg) of belladonna with 1 drachm (1/8 oz) of lard. The soldier would have been told to apply this prescription to the affected leg 2 to 3 times day.
Modern day uses for the compounds found in belladonna are similar to those during the Civil War and include atropine drops to dilate the pupil for eye examinations and hyoscyamine to treat a variety of stomach and intestinal problems such as cramps and irritable bowel syndrome. Today, scopolamine is applied as a patch behind the ear to prevent motion sickness.
Next time, we will continue along a musical vein by focusing on the British invasion with such songs as “Thyme” by Pink Floyd, “Thyme Waits for No One” and “Thyme is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones. As you may have guessed, we will be taking a look at the medicinal uses of English Thyme.
Learn more in this interview with Greg Susla, the post’s author
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Pry House Medicinal Garden. Click below to be directed to the others.
About the Author
Greg Susla has been a volunteer at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine since January 2011. Greg’s interest in the Civil War stems from his home town, Torrington, CT, the birth place of the abolitionist John Brown. Greg received his pharmacy degrees from the Universities of Connecticut and Florida and completed a critical care pharmacy residency at the Ohio State University Hospitals. Greg spent the majority of his career as the ICU pharmacist at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD and volunteered his time in the ICU at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. Greg has been active in the Society of Critical Care Medicine for over 25 years serving on a number of the Society’s committees, and is a Fellow in the American College of Critical Care Medicine. Greg recently retired as the Associate Director of Medical Information at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, MD. Greg is leading the restoration of the garden and is being assisted by his wife Lisa and other staff members and volunteers at the Museum and Pry House. Greg and his wife Lisa live in Frederick, MD.Tags: Belladonna, Civil War Medicine, Greg Susla, Nightshade, pry garden, Pry House, Pry House Field Hospital Museum, Pry House Medicinal Garden Posted in: Pry