|Atropa belladonna berries|
Belladonna is a species of flowering plants in the nightshade family, which is known by the scientific name Atropa bella-donna. Though extremely toxic, it is actually a relative of the potato – toxins found in the nightshade are very similar to the chemicals in the green bits of the potatoes.  Its name is a derivative of the Italian phrase meaning “beautiful women” since the toxin atropine was often used to dilate the pupils of women’s eyes for cosmetic purposes. It is commonly known by many names such as deadly nightshade, bittersweet nightshade, black nightshade, Devil’s cherries, murderer’s berry, love apple, sorcerer’s cherry, great morel or just belladonna. Also called dwale - deriving this common name from the French word for sorrow, deuil, or the Scandinavian word, dool, for sleep or delay - deadly nightshade is a very effective poison.  Atropa, the genus name, is the name of a Greek Fate who cut the thread of a person's life. Atropa bella-donna is commonly confused with the Solanum interius, which is also called black nightshade.
The belladonna is a perennial dicot.   Belladonnas grow to about three – five feet high. There are multiple branched herbaceous stems, usually a blue-purple color. There are typically no more than two to three branches.
Oval or egg-shaped leaves sprout from the branches in a dull dark green color and are smooth but veined, with smaller sprouts growing beneath them from the same stalk. An oily, poison ivy esque coating covers the leaves and can cause severe skin irritations.  The larger ones grow in pairs opposite each other. They look very similar to a tomato’s leaves.  The leaves can be up to eight inches long and are bigger in younger plants than older ones.  During the first year of growth, the leaves all sprout close to the ground from a single stem. Belladonna leaves are the heaviest of all in the angiosperm group.
The flowers are bell-shaped, formed from one petal, and droop downwards. The petals are blue-purple or red and appear veined. The corolla is shaped into five or so teeth or lobes that flare outwards slightly. The whole flower is no longer than one inch.  Inside the petal are five anthers (the pollen-bearing part of a stamen) which are a bright golden-yellow. The anther’s stalks will grow longer once the anthers ripen. The pistil (the ovule-bearing or seed-bearing female organ of a flower, consisting when complete of ovary, style, and stigma) is grooved on both sides and has a honey gland at its foundation. The stigma, the first to ripen, will extend past the anthers. It is thread-like and green.
The berries are shiny, black and round with a groove running down the center that divides it into two lobes. They contain the seeds of the plant. These berries begin as a bright green but ripen to black commensurate to the flowers’ ripening. They are very sweet and tempting to curious children; as a result, many children have died from eating only two or three of the berries.  The berries have a strong taste, though some say it is sweet while others taste bitterness. The ripened berries are about the size of a cherry.  Belladonna roots are white in color, soft and thick. It branches out randomly and reaches about six inches in length.
Every part of this plant is highly toxic. Alkaloids are contained in the leaves and roots; one such alkaloid, atropine, is used to dilate the pupils and is an antispasmodic in the treatment of [[asthma].  It has been found that a mixture of 1 part alkaloid to 130,000 parts water is enough to dilate a cat’s eye. The chemicals scopolamine and hyoscyamine have also been found. 
Flowers generally have four parts: the stamen, carpals, sepals, and petals. The stamen produces the pole, carpals grow into fruits which hold the new seeds, sepals protect the bud while it grows, and petals attract the insects. The flowers will bloom in June or July and last through September. A modified stem known as the receptacle bears the flower. The bloom is the sporophyte generation in angiosperms; the flower will produce the gametophyte generation.  The stamen is the male part of the plant and is made up of the anther (the pollen-bearing part of a stamen) and the filament which supports the anther. Once the pollen grains are mature, the anther will split open and release the pollen. The pistil is the female part of the plant. It encompasses the stigma (the part of a pistil that receives the pollen), style (a stalk structure in female flower parts), carpal (ovary), and ovules (eggs). Pollination can be carried out by the wind, insects, or birds, bats or other mammals. The pollen is transferred from the stamen of one plant to the stigma of a different flower, either on the same plant (self-pollination) or on a different plant (cross pollination). Pollen grains will germinate on the stigma and grow down the style that supports it to the ovule. Seeds grow from the fertilized ovules. The petals will fall away, leaving the carpal behind to develop.  Once the stigma is pollinated, the carpel will begin to grow into a fruit containing the next generation of seeds. The carpal becomes the flesh of the fruit and serves as protection for the ovary. The belladonna’s fruit begins green but darkens as it ripens until it is a deep purple-black color.  The seeds themselves are made up of three parts: the embryo, the food supply, and a seed coat.  The fruit may fall off the parent plant and sprout.  Germination can be challenging and many factors inhibit the growth of the belladonna. It is not a very resilient plant and doesn’t like to be transplanted. Germination takes many weeks; the conditions must be perfect to ensure survival. The soil must be completely sterile, warm and moist.
Belladonna is native to Central and Southern Europe, South-west Asia and Algeria; cultivated in England, France and North America (mostly Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and California). It has grown rare as of late. In Europe it is almost solely found in abandoned places like ruins and old quarries.  the plants proliferate in the shade, in wooded areas, and places rich in limestone. The belladonna shies away from the sun as nearby plants fond of the sun tend to stifle it. Theses conditions usually ensue from being cultivated; open spaces also open them up to insect pestilence.  The belladonna grows predominantly in sandy soil, or occasionally in chalk. The soil must be rich and moist. It can flourish even in dry, harsh conditions. Belladonna plants are susceptible to pests like the flea beetle and potato beetle; they are apt to fall prey to wilt disease. A beetle, Crepidodera atropae, feeds upon it, as does the Dotted Clay moth (Agrotis baja).   many animals, such as rabbits and deer, have been seen eating the belladonna without any side effects; other animals like dogs, cats and horses are prone to sever reactions and even death.
Growing Deadly Belladonna
Belladonna can be grown from seeds or cutting of another plant. After purchasing seeds, place them in a freezer for about two weeks. Belladonna seeds must be stratified (to preserve or germinate (seeds) by placing them between layers of earth) before they can be planted. After freezing, soak the seeds in water for at least three days. The water will soften the seed casing so that the seeds will germinate easier.
Indoor/potted: Fill a small pot with potting soil. Gently press a few seeds into the soil and water completely. Make sure the plant is in full sunlight, but don’t let it dry out. Keep the soil damp, not soaking, until the first sprouts appear. Once the plants develop, thin them out so that only the strongest two or three are left in the pot. Once these reach five to six inches in height, you can transplant them so that there is one plant per pot. 
Outdoor: the seeds should be sown early since they can take up to six weeks to sprout. Plant them in flats during March. Once the seedlings reach one inch high, they should be planted at least eighteen inches apart. Water well after transplanting and keep them out of direct sunlight for a few days. Plants will only grow to about 1 and a half feet high during their first year; at this point the tops and leaves can be harvested. Don’t completely strip the plant. Before winter comes, thin the plants so that there is at least 2 and a half feet between them. The plants will die back and sprout again when spring comes. Once they flower in June, they may be cut back to an inch. They should be ready to harvest by September. In autumn of the fourth year, the roots are ready to harvest and new plants can be put in their place. 
Professional killers have used belladonna for centuries. The famous assassin Locusta is said to have used belladonna to kill the Roman emperor Claudius. Belladonna is said to be the plant used to poison Marcus Antonius’ troops in the Parthian Wars. According to one story, the soldiers of Macbeth (either through a gift after a truce or by leaving the treasure behind) tainted liquor with belladonna and left it for the Danish to find. After they had drunk, they were easily overpowered and the Scots won, slaying the Danes in their sleep. Other stories claim that ancient Gaelic tribes would drink belladonna before a battle as an “herb of courage.” 
Symptoms and Side Effects
Symptoms of belladonna poisoning include asthenia (a unusual lack of energy or weakness), diarrhea, vomiting, fever, drowsiness, hallucinations, headaches, nausea, seizures, sweating, vision changes, abdominal pains, weakness, and respiratory depression. Comas or convulsions herald death. Other side effects include hyperactivity, nervousness, trouble walking, confusion and slurred speech among other effects. Even after swallowing, the effects can last for a long time; belladonna slows down the digestion of food so it will stay in the body long after it is swallowed. 
Women in the olden days would treat their faces with belladonna. Belladonna would give the cheeks a rosy color, and when applied to the eyes would dilate the pupils, giving the eyes a lustrous look that was appealing in those days.  The berry juice was used to stain the skin a deep purple color. 
The alkaloids in belladonna can have many medicinal purposes when used correctly. Herbal medicines in China contain alkaloids used to treat asthma, flu symptoms, and chronic bronchitis. It is also taken to lessen the pain of childbirth. Smoking the leaves is a remedy used by African tribes to treat asthma and pulmonary issues.  The atropine in belladonna is an antidote to poisoning by cholinesterase inhibitors such as Parathion and Malathion. Atropine is also effective in curing chemical nerve agents used in warfare.  It is also useful for dilating pupils for eye examinations. Dipping the leaves of the belladonna in vinegar and applying them to the skin was used to cause a deep sleep. 
In Bohemia, the plant is held to be the plant of the devil who watches it constantly except during Walpurgis Night. The devil may be drawn away from the plant by letting a black hen loose on that night only; the devil is said to chase after the hen and leave the plant unguarded. Others say that the apple of Sodom is a close relative of belladonna. Belladonna is commonly associated with witches and since it causes the sensation of flying, many say it is where the idea of witches on broomstick originated. Roman priests also used in a ritual to summon Bellona, the goddess of war.  
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