Deadly nightshade

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), with folk names volčja črešnja or paskvica, is one of the most poisonous plants in Slovenia, known since the classical era. Plants in the nightshade family contain the toxic alkaloids atropine and scopolamine, which in large enough doses can cause death due to obstructed breathing. In folk medicine, deadly nightshade was used with great caution: most often, its smoke was used to treat asthma or other conditions, of both livestock and people. The highly toxic deadly nightshade was used by veterinarians when confronted with certain diseases in pigs.

Its specific name belladonna (“beautiful woman”) points to the old practice of using the juice of deadly nightshade berries as eye-drops. This caused the pupils to dilate which, according to the beauty standards of the time, made women more attractive. In the Middle Ages, deadly nightshade was one of the most common ingredients in magical ointments. These ointments, whose ingredients could be absorbed through the skin and which were supposedly used by “evil witches”, caused hallucinations and delirium in line with the known effects of plant alkaloids. Medieval chronicles are full of accounts of witchcraft in which women, meeting in secret, first consumed a potion, then took of their clothing and rubbed magical ointment made from hallucinogenic plants into their skin. The symptoms of these activities included temporary memory loss, hallucinations, and sensations of flight, while their fugue was supposedly also accompanied by a wild lust. Folk tradition describes flights of witches to Slivnica and Klek, some of which were also recorded by Janez Vajkard Valvasor in the 17th century. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, in the time of the Inquisition, women who resisted the dictates of the Catholic church were persecuted. Some were branded witches and burnt at the stake.

Slovenian botanist Martin Cilenšek’s accounts of deadly nightshade poisoning reveal that consumption of the berries sometimes resulted in death, other times in insanity – from which originates the folk name norica (“madwoman”). Until recently, deadly nightshade was cultivated in plantations around Mengeš for the pharmaceutical industry’s needs.

More about healing and magical plants in Slovene tradition you can read in book SACRED PLANTS IN FOLK MEDICINE & RITUALS – ETHNOBOTANY OF SLOVENIA by Vlasta Mlakar

© Vlasta Mlakar