Country diary: the secrets of deadly nightshade

Country diary: the secrets of deadly nightshade

A translation of a 17th-century haiku by Basho is “Fading bells – / now musky blossoms / peal in dusk”. His bells may not refer to the flowers we find in dusky shadows at the wood’s edge, but it fits them; they are musky and mysterious, ringing out an old story about magic, poison and death.

When Linnaeus described and named these plants in 1753, he included them in Class 1 (“herbaceous plants … bell-shaped flowers of which the pistil becomes a fleshy fruit rather large”), and he named only two genera – Mandragora (the human-shaped root believed to grow underneath gallows, and dug for magical rituals) and Belladonna. Linnaeus merged the two into Atropa – “the unmaking”, named after one of the Three Fates who cuts the thread of life her sisters make. Belladona (“beautiful woman”, named after the seductive dilation of pupils it can cause) became Atropa belladonnadeadly nightshade. And that name is not accidental: this plant is deadly.

There was a plant in the corner of this wood for many years. Recently it vanished as if deliberately removed, but a couple of plants have reappeared nearby under ash trees – perhaps re-established by birds immune to the shiny, purple-black berries. These fruits are loaded with psychoactive drugs: the three fates of atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Since ancient times, these agents have woven threads of delirium, frenzy, arousal and hallucination, through magic and folklore.

The plant was also known as the 'sorcerer's pomade'.

This is the “flying ointment” of witchcraft, the “sorcerer’s pomade”, the visionary elixir of monk and shaman. How many times have the bells been tolled for the devout, the seeker of secrets, the curious, the damned, whose visions have led them into the darkest nightshade because, by accident or design, the dose was wrong?

Although it is used in homeopathy, and modern medicine has synthesised the chemicals of the Solanaceae family – belladonna looks like a big, feral potato plant – to treat ailments such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and Parkinson’s disease, it also has more dubious applications as a truth serum and for brainwashing. The bells of belladonna have a strange purple glow, and a smell that suggests some deadly secret hidden in the roots.

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