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deadly nightshade - DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (Atropa belladonna)
deadly nightshade - Atropos was one of the three Fates. She it was who cut the thread of life spun by her sister. And this plant is her namesake, for it is, perhaps, the most poisonous plant that grows wild in our country, and is well named the "Death Herb." Gerard's stern caution rings through three hundred years, " But if you will follow my counsell deale not with the same in any case, and banish it from your gardens and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly, for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleepe where many have died, as hath been often seen and proved by experience both in England and elsewhere." Long before his day, when Duncan I. was King of Scotland and Macbeth his general, the wily Scots poisoned a whole army of invading Danes, by placing its berries in the wine they supplied during a truce, and since that day the tale of tragedies due to it has been continued. Children are particularly apt to be attracted by the shining lusciousness of the berries. Happily the plant is rare even in the waste and stony places it favours. It is a true native, but is also often supposed to be a relic of olden days, when it found a place in every herb garden, and colour is lent to this supposition by its frequent presence near ruins and quarries. In the darker days of the Middle Ages, together with the hemlock and the henbane, it played a great part in the machinations of witches.
Most of its common names refer to its evil properties; Daft Berries, Devil's Berry, Mad Nightshade, Deadly or Sleeping Nightshade and Banewort (a plant to be banned) all illustrate this point. Dwale, the name by which Chaucer knew it, and by which it is still known in some parts of England, is said to be derived either from a French word, deuil, signifying mourning, or from a Danish word, dwaelen, meaning delirium. The curious name "Manicon," sometimes met with, is probably a country rendering of the old name "Maniacum," owing to the madness it causes. Shakespeare no doubt had this plant in mind when he spoke of "the insane root that takes the reason prisoner."
From a botanical point of view the plant is interesting. It has a thick root which, year by year, sends up branching shoots two, three, or even four feet high. On these shoots are leaves of two very different sizes, and on the horizontal branches the manner of their arrangement is striking. Looking down on such a shoot we see large leaves arranged on short stalks in a row on either side of the stem; in the spaces that are left between their stalks small leaves are inserted one in each gap, so that there are two rows of small leaves lying close by the stem. All four rows of leaves have their faces turned upwards, so that all are equally well lighted, and the whole arrangement forms a charming mosaic. In the angles which the leaf stalks make with the stem the flowers arise, those in the axils of the little leaves being the older, so that we may get fruit maturing in their case, while their neighbours on either side growing by the big leaves are still in their flowering prime. The flowers hang singly and droopingly on short stems; they are bell-shaped and of a curiously dull, lurid purple, deeper in hue within than without, and streaked with yellow towards the bottom inside the bell. Lord Avebury suggests that from their size and shape they are chiefly adapted for "middle-sized humble bees." The calyx is dull green in colour and divided into five parts; on the corolla the five stamens stand on long filaments, but the ovary within the bell carries a yet much longer column. Round the ovary honey is hidden and carefully protected by stiff hairs growing on the stamens. Now when the bud first opens we have a drooping bell with the ovary column stretching a good way out beyond it, its end being particularly sticky. When the "middle-sized humble bees" come to the flower they are bound at once to strike it with their probably pollen-dusty bodies, and so leave pollen sticking upon it. It is particularly sensitive to pollen influence, and within an hour of receiving it, it will turn brown, wither, and eventually drop off, its function fulfilled. The bee dives into the bell after the honey, but in the earliest hours of the flower's life the pollen boxes are closed and pressed against the petal wall. But in a neighbouring flower matters may have progressed farther; the stamen heads have come out towards the centre and opened, and the filaments have lengthened so that they are well at the mouth of the bell. Here the bee collects - inadvertently, it is true - pollen, as well as honey, to impinge later upon the sticky stigma of a younger flower.
Perhaps it is to meet the necessities of the case that neighbouring flowers are so different in age.
Then the fruit forms, the calyx surrounding it like a halo, though the other parts of the flower have vanished. It has a curious habit of retiring behind the leaves at this stage, and remaining out of sight there while it matures. It grows juicy, dark, and cherry-like, and it is now that it is so alluring to children. One of the children's names for the plant is "Naughty Man's Cherry," which suggests a warning mother. Another name due to this aspect is "Great Morel." If the berry be cut through, a number of small seeds will be seen carefully arranged in the pulp round two oval cushions. Poisoning by eating these berries causes thirst, delirium, loss of consciousness, and finally death, unless remedies are applied. The best treatment in such a case is to give an emetic, a dose of magnesia, and then some hot coffee, and keep the patient warm.
The poison principle runs throughout the plant. Grazing animals leave it severely alone, but small animals, such as rabbits, seem to eat it with impunity. If, however, these rabbits are in their turn eaten by man, he may be poisoned. But to reverse the proverb, what is one man's poison may be another man's meat, and so we find that a certain small beetle (Haltica atropæ) lives almost entirely upon its leaves. In an old MS. we find some advice to bird catchers: "For to take all manner of byrdys," they are recommended to soak corn in dwale solution and lay it by the birds' "haunteyne" (haunts). They will eat and sleep, and " ye may take them with your handys." It is a plan with more to recommend it than the traditional application of salt to their tails.
The plant is used extensively in these days to supply the doctors and chemists with belladonna for plasters, ointments and tinctures, and is cultivated in fields for these purposes in Suffolk and near Hitchin. When the plant is in flower it is gathered and sent to the laboratory for its juices to be extracted. Later on the root is also dug up, dried, and employed for making other medical drugs. The extract has a remarkable effect upon the pupils of the eyes, and in the form of atropin is largely used by oculists to dilate the pupils. If one touches the leaves and then rubs one's eyes, the sight will even be effected by the slight amount on one's fingers Its second botanical name Belladonna - beautiful lady - refers to the Italian ladies' practice of using it as a cosmetic to increase the apparent size of their eyes, and hence to enhance their beauty.
The plant stands in a genus all to itself, and its family, the Solanaceæ, is but poorly represented so far as our native plants are concerned. But since the potato, the tomato and the tobacco are among its members, it cannot be said to be an unimportant family in a world-wide sense.
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