Deadly nightshade (Atropa Belladonna)
Atropa belladonna is a branching herbaceous perennial belonging to the family Solanaceae, grouped together with plants such as potato, tomato and tobacco. Growing from a fleshy rootstock, it can reach a height of 1.5 metres tall. It has long ovate leaves and purple bell-shaped flowers which are faintly scented. The berries are green, ripening to a shiny black, and approximately 1 cm in diameter.
It's name, Atropa, derives from Atropos; one of the three Fates who in Greek mythology held the shears which could cut the thread of life. Thus, a plant called ‘Atropa’ can end life.
Deadly nightshade is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids. The active agents are atropine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and hyoscyamine, which have anticholinergic properties.
The symptoms of poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.
The root of the plant is generally the most toxic part, though this can vary from one specimen to another. Ingestion of a single leaf of the plant can be fatal to an adult. Casual contact with the leaves can cause skin pustules.
The berries pose the greatest danger to children because they look attractive and have a somewhat sweet taste. The consumption of two to five berries by children and ten to twenty berries by adults can be lethal. In 2009 a case of A. belladonna being mistaken for blueberries, with six berries ingested by an adult woman, was documented to result in severe anticholinergic syndrome.
A. belladonna is also toxic to many domestic animals, causing narcosis and paralysis. However, cattle and rabbits eat the plant seemingly without suffering harmful effects In humans its anticholinergic properties will cause the disruption of cognitive capacities like memory and learning.
Its name, belladonna, comes from its use by Venetian women who ate the berries in order to make themselves 'beautiful ladies' by causing their pupils to dilate.
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