Atropia belladonna is the scientific name for a once very infamous, but now a medically important perennial herbaceous plant that is commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade. It is in the same botanical family as tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant, and is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.
Deadly nightshade develops bell-shaped, purple-colored flowers and produces red-colored berries that are poisonous. The juice of the berries is used to make the drug atropine, which is used by doctors to enlarge the pupils during an eye examination.
Atropine is an involuntary nervous system blocker that can be used to treat heart rhythm problems, stomach or bowel problems, and as an antidote to treat certain types of poisoning when injected. It can also be used to help reduce saliva, mucus, or other secretions in ones airway during a surgical procedure.
However, atropine and scopolamine are strong alkaloid drugs derived from the deadly nightshade plant that are highly toxic poisons when misused. The deadly nightshade has been a killer of kings, emperors, and warriors throughout history.
Centuries ago, the plant developed a reputation as the poison of choice for assassins and criminals. The Roman military created a deadly paste from the plant that was used to make poison-tipped arrows for archers. This practice was in use for centuries.
During the Middle Ages, women put deadly nightshade berry juice in their eyes to make their pupils wide and more attractive which is why the plant is also "belladonna" from the Italian for "beautiful woman." Also a beauty tonic made from the leaves and berries of the deadly nightshade was used by Venetian women to redden the pigment of their skin for a blush-like appearance.
Although the belladonna plant is no longer used as a cosmetic, and incidental deaths do still occur from it, it can be stated that today the "Beautiful Lady" saves many more lives than she takes.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.