A tall, bushy plant with a disagreeable odor, belladonna is sometimes known as deadly nightshade. A member of the Solanaceae family, Atropa belladonna grows naturally in wooded or waste areas in central and southern Eurasia.
The name belladonna, meaning 'beautifullady', comes from the ancient custom of boiling the leaves and bathing the eyes with the resulting liquid to make them appear larger, brighter and glistening. The plant grows to a height of 1.5 meters and has dull, green leaves of an oval, pointed shape, which are usually 7-15 cm long. Its flowers are violet or greenish and the shiny, black berries are the size of cherries. The plant has a long, tapering root.
Although belladonna is extremely poisonous it is grown in France and other countries for the medicinal drugs that can be obtained from it. These belong to the class of alkaloids and act on the central nervous system, the smooth and cardiac muscles and the secretory glands. In particular, the extracted drugs are hyosycamine, scopolamine and atropine. They are used as sedatives, respiratory and heart stimulants, antispasmodics and to suppress saliva production. Frequent or large doses of atropine may result in poisoning although fatalities rarely occur from its use. Because of such side effects these alkaloids are now being replaced by synthetic drugs.
Not so long ago persons who were admitted to hospital in a psychotic state with fever and widely dilated pupils often turned out to have smoked excessive quantities of antiasthma cigarettes, which contained belladonna alkaloids.