Nightshade, also known as Belladonna, is a plant found in much of central Europe, and it has been cultivated in North America and England, although it’s becoming increasingly harder to find in the British Isles. The plant itself, sometimes called Deadly Nightshade, has a thick, fleshy root, dark green leaves, and shiny black berries that resemble cherries.
Nightshade naturally contains an alkaloid (atropine) that can be toxic in even small doses. Interestingly, the root is the most poisonous of all the parts of the plant. There have been numerous reports throughout the years of children eating the tasty-looking berries and experiencing Belladonna poisoning, which can be fatal.
There is a German legend that the plant belongs to the Devil himself, and that he goes about tending it all year long - except for on Walpurgisnacht, when he is preparing for the witches’ sabbat. The plant also appears in Scottish history - it is said that MacBeth’s soldiers managed to poison an entire army of Danes by mixing Belladonna into liquor that was offered during a truce. Once the Danes fell into “a deep slumber,” they were murdered by Scottish troops.
Atropine can be extracted from the Nightshade plant, and is often used in a medical setting. It has been included in treatments of eye disease, and is a natural sedative and narcotic. From a magical perspective, it is believed that nightshade was used as one of the ingredients in “flying ointment” used by witches of the past. It is also associated with hallucinations and psychic exploration. Because of the dangerous properties of this plant, it is generally recommended that modern practitioners avoid its use.
Keep in mind that the plant Belladonna, although nicknamed Nightshade, should not be confused with other plants that are members of the nightshade family. Plants in the nightshade family produce some sort of toxin that prevents garden critters and insects from eating them, and are typically not harmful to humans. Tobacco, potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are part of the nightshade family of plants, and should not be confused with Belladonna.