Atropa belladonna L. (Nightshade family; Solanaceae)
The perennial herb belladonna is native to Europe and Asia.It reaches a height of up to 5 feet (1.5 m) with branches of about 3 feet (1 m). The furry, ovate leaves change their size after the first year from 8 inches (20 cm) and become smaller. The color of the bell-shaped flowers varies from blue-purple to a dull red. After withering a ½-inch (10 cm) berry is maturing, which firstly is green followed by a shiny, black, or purple color.
Cultivation and Propagation. Belladonna is a hardy plant, which dies up to the roots in winter and rises again in spring. For an optimal growth of your plant, the soil should be rich in nutrients, limed, and always kept moistured. The plant prefers a half-shady place to grow because when exposed to too much sun it will wither. To assure an ideal growth in sunny areas, it is a habit to sow them between bean plants as it provides the necessary shade for belladonna plants.
Early march the seeds should be sown in flats. This is rather easy because you only have to lay the seeds on top of the substrate and gently press them down. The temperature during the sowing should be around 68°F (20°C). From sowing to germination, it takes around 4-6 weeks. In the first 2-4 weeks, the substrate with the seedlings should be cooled down to 40°F (5°C); then, germination of the seeds starts after the cooling period. When the plantlets reach a height of about an inch (2.5 cm) they should be set out with about 18 inches (45 cm) distance. After transplanting, you have to water the plantlets, but pay attention that the seedlings are not exposed to much sunlight, so keep them shady.
It is also possible to propagate belladonna by cutting off the green branch tips or by using rootstocks. This is mostly more promising because only 60% of the seedlings germinate. The propagation by cions/rootstocks should be done in early March.
In the first year, the plants reach a maximum height of 1 ½ feet (45 cm) and start to flower in September. Now you already can start harvesting; however, in order to fully enjoy your plants, you should only cut off the tips and the leaves but not to stripe the complete plant. At beginning of winter, the plants should be transplanted again to avoid overcrowding in the second year. Finally, mid of June of the second year, the plants can be cut off one inch (2.5 cm) above the ground. If you are lucky, you can harvest a second time in September. In the fourth year it is advisable to harvest the complete plant including the roots and replace them by new plantlets.
Enemies. The worst pests for the belladonna are snails, aphids, and white flies.
Harvesting. Both the leaves as well as the fruits contain alkaloids and can be harvested. The best time to harvest the leaves is between May and June because in this period they contain the highest amounts of alkaloids. After harvesting, they should immediately be dried in the sun and then be stored dark and airtight. Wilted and discolored leaves should not be further used, for they only contain small amounts of alkaloids. The best date to harvest the fruits is before complete maturation. They, too, are dried in the sun, but contrary to the leaves they should be stored at airy places.
Effect. The consumption of the fruits or plant parts causes an intoxication. Poisoned people are euphoric and excited and have strong hallucinations, which normally last for about 24 hours, but aftereffects like confusion can last until one week after consumptions. After about 6 hours after the consumption of belladonna either by inhalation or orally, the effects will occur
Side effects. Physical side effects are confusion, sweating, an increased heartbeat and body temperature, decline of the visual acuity, thirstiness, unbalancing, as well as mydriasis. During the renaissance, the effect of mydriasis was used to induce the doe-eyed look, giving the belladonna its name.
Active agent. The main components of belladonna are the alkaloids atropin and hyoscyamin, which can be found up to 0.3 wt% in the roots.