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Belladonna (atropa belladonna)
Belladonna is one of the most dangerous medicinal plants found in the Mediterranean area; contains an alkaloid, atropine, with a rapid and inexorable effect, which functions as an antagonist of some neurotransmitters, decreasing bronchial secretions, stopping the action of the vagus nerve and modifying the heartbeat. It also contains scopolamine and Hysociamina, other active ingredients used today in medicine.
It is a plant widespread in nature, in uncultivated and sunny areas, which belongs to the Solanaceae family; atropine is also contained in Datura and mandrake.
Belladonna has been used in medicine for centuries; in ancient times it was used as an anesthetic, but also as a powerful poison.
|Family and gender|
Solanaceae, atropa, belladonna
|Type of plant||Semi-woody perennial|
|Exposure||Half shade, shadow|
|Ground||Light, drained, calcareous|
|Composting||On weak plants with nitrogen and potassium|
|Flowering||From June to September|
|Propagation||Sowing, cutting, division|
|Pests and diseases||Rottenness, beetles|
The plant generally called belladonna is a herbaceous perennial belonging to the Solanaceae family. It can be found as spontaneous in Europe, North Africa, East Asia and in some parts of Canada and the United States. Its natural habitat is the mountainous and hilly areas from 400 to 1500 meters. It grows better when the substrate is alkaline, possibly with a calcium component. In Italy it is easily found in the Alpine and Pre-Alpine and Apennine areas of all regions.
It is very well known because both its leaves and its berries are extremely toxic since they contain a very powerful alkaloid. The effects of ingesting parts of the plant include delusions and hallucinations. From this plant a drug called atropine is derived. It has been known for a very long time and its use in medicine and cosmetics is very ancient. Before the Middle Ages it was commonly used as an anesthetic during surgical operations. The Romans were uses to use it as a poison. It was in fact used to kill the wives of some emperors. It was also common to wet the tip of the arrows to be used for hunting with the extract.
The name atropa comes from the Greek and refers to Atropos, one of the three Moires of mythology, the one that dealt with cutting "the thread of life".
The name belladonna is of Italian origin and refers to the medieval and Renaissance custom of using this plant to induce pupil dilation and make the eyes more attractive.
It is a perennial herbaceous plant usually characterized by a woody or semi-woody base and a woody root system. It can grow up to 1.5 meters in height. The leaves are ovate up to 18 cm long, dark green. The bell-shaped, axillary flowers appear between June and July and are purple with green stamens bearing a light fragrance. Production can go on continuously until September. There is also a variety that produces yellow flowers (lutea).
The fruits are initially green berries that over time turn into dark almost purple, glossy. The diameter is about 1 cm. The taste is sweet and they are a food appetite by the animals that then expel the seeds favoring their diffusion.
It is a plant rarely introduced by man into gardens because it is not very aesthetically pleasing. He can therefore often arrive as spontaneous because of his ease of propagation linked to the transport of seeds through birds or other wildlife. It is considered a pest in many areas (especially in the United States).
In any case, home cultivation is not simple because seed germination occurs only after a long vernalization or, as we have said, due to the passage of an animal into the stomach, it is also very sensitive to root rot and therefore needs, at least in the first times, of a well-drained and dry soil.
Use in medicine
In the modern pharmacopoeia the alkaloids contained in the belladonna are used in various fields of medicine; certainly the most widespread and common use is that of atropine: this substance, if instilled in the eye, dilates the pupils, keeping them dilated in any light condition for a few hours.
This property is known to anyone who has undergone an eye examination, where the dilated pupil allows for some otherwise difficult measurements.
This characteristic of belladonna is also the one that owes its common name: in fact in fact drops of decoction were used to dilate the pupils of the ladies, as a very welcome feature, which exalted the beauty of the eyeballs.
Other alkaloids are used to prepare drugs for acute abdominal pain, to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, heart problems, to counteract the effect of some poisons, such as barbiturates.
Other uses of Belladonna
belladonna was used for preparations against painful states in general, from ulcers to menstrual pains; also the use for heart problems is ancient.
Belladonna poisoning symptoms, which include states of hallucination, have also made it interesting as a drug, since it is enough to consume some berries, which have an almost pleasant taste; clearly those who used it in this way did not take into account the dangers to which they were subjected, as some belladonna berries they can be deadly, without the possibility of counteracting the effect in any way.
beautiful woman is a solanacea very common in Italy; It is a perennial plant, which in areas with a mild winter climate behaves almost like a shrub. It has semi-woody stems, woody in the basal part, and a beautiful dark green foliage; in spring it produces small light flowers, followed by round berries, which become shiny black when ripe.
The plant is not cultivated for ornamental purposes, not only for its dangerousness, but also because it has no decorative appeal; It is a small shrub that goes unnoticed, many of us will have seen dozens of belladonna plants without even noticing it.
The berries are similar to large blueberries, black and shiny, and can be inviting, therefore it is not recommended to grow them in the garden, because unwary children or pets could be pushed to taste them.
Where the belladonna grows
Belladonna is a plant that finds its ideal habitat in mountainous areas at an altitude of about 1400 meters s.l.m ... This plant grows optimally on calcareous soils and in wet areas, especially in the undergrowth of beech-woods. It grows spontaneously in many areas of central Europe but also in northern Africa and western Asia. In our country it is possible to find the belladonna in its natural state in the woods of the Alps and the Apennines.
How to grow belladonna
This plant is rarely grown in gardens. In fact, its toxicity is greatly feared and, on the other hand, from an aesthetic point of view, it cannot be said to be extremely decorative.
Instead, it is intensively cultivated because it requires its extracts from the pharmaceutical, phytotherapic and homeopathic industries. The value of the plants is established according to the amount of alkaloid present in the roots. This is strongly influenced by the presence of light, permeable and calcareous soil. The best exposure from this point of view is surely the South-West one.
Fertilization should not be abundant if the plants are robust. If instead they struggle to grow they can be helped through the use of manure, nitrogen fertilizers or Thomas slag. However, atmospheric conditions have a strong influence on the contents of the alkaloid: sunny and dry years are very favorable, even if they are detrimental from other points of view (parasites).
As we have said, sowing Belladonna is by no means simple. First of all the seeds need to be vernalized, so spend the winter outside (or in the refrigerator). However, before placing them there it is good to dip the seeds in hot water to kill any parasite that tends to feed on new-born shoots. In March the seeds can be placed in a light, well-drained and slightly calcareous lettorino. Germination is very slow and may take four or six weeks. However, it is advisable to use several because the percentage of germination is not high.
Planting and cultivation treatments
Unfortunately it is very sensitive to insects and pests in the soil. It is therefore necessary, before introducing it in a plot, to carefully prepare the area by cleaning in depth from seeds, weeds and other vehicles of parasites.
The best time to move to the open land is May, so as to be sure that there can be no more frosts. We choose to plant it after the rains.
These plants particularly like half-shade and shade. They can, however, be damaged, especially when young, from intense cold late. It is therefore important, at least the first year after insertion, to cover the foot before the arrival of winter with abundant mature manure and perhaps other material suitable for mulching. Weed cleaning will always remain very important throughout the life of the plant.
From the third year you can begin to collect useful leaves for medicinal purposes. Generally there are two harvesting cycles, one in May and the other in September, taking care not to completely strip the specimen and choosing only the perfect leaves, then green and not attacked by pests.
At the industrial level when the plants reach six years of age they are extracted from the ground, manually or mechanically. The roots are then washed and dried to then be sold.
Cutting and division
Once you have the plant, you can also multiply it by cutting cuttings in early summer. It is necessary to take segments of about 10 cm and place them in a very light compound kept constantly moist in the shade. With the aid of suitable hormonal products, the emission of roots is already achieved within three weeks. The division of the roots is carried out instead in the month of April. The specimens must be extracted from the ground and subdivided so that each piece of root has at least one shoot.
The most feared pests of the belladonna are undoubtedly the beetles. These in fact feed on the leaves by piercing them and making them unusable and unsellable. Attacks are favored by too sunny exposure and arid terrain. It is therefore necessary to cultivate at least in partial shade and carefully mulch the soil to be sure that it always remains moist. Alternatively, specific geo-insecticides or specially prepared glue traps can be used.
Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the eastern hemisphere. All parts contain the tropane alkaloid. Berries are the biggest danger, especially for children. In fact they have a very attractive appearance and a sweetish taste. Consumption from two to five berries can be lethal to an adult. The most toxic part of all, however, is the root, although the concentration of alkaloids can vary considerably between the individual varieties spread in different areas or due to cultivation methods.
However, remember that even the leaves have a good concentration and can be fatal. Rabbits, sheep, goats and pigs have no problem feeding on the plant, and many birds are immune and feed on berries and seeds. Dogs and cats, on the other hand, are sensitive and therefore special attention must be paid. The active ingredients present are: atropine, scopamine and L-giusciamina. The most common poisoning symptoms are: dilated pupils, extreme sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, headache, thirst, vomiting, dry mouth, difficulty and slow down in speech, hallucinations, delirium and convulsions. In the most serious cases we can reach death. However, the atropine is not only contained in this plant, but more generally in all solanaceae, more particularly in Datura stramonio, in potatoes (leaves and uncooked tuber), tomatoes (in green parts). The best antidotes for this poisoning are pilocarpine and physostigmine. However, it is always important to contact an emergency room as soon as possible and call a poison control center.
Cosmetics as we have said in the past was used to obtain pupil dilation. In fact it works by blocking the receptors of the eye muscles. Currently it is little used in this area because it involves serious side effects and a continuous use could be a cause of blindness.
Medicinal belladonna has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. Its main use was as an anesthetic, anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant. Also used to relieve menstrual pain, allergic reactions. The dyes, powders and salts of the alkaloid are still produced and sought after by the industry for pharmaceutical use. For example it is used in drops to favor the examination of the eyes or it is useful in the treatment of gastric pains. The belladonna, along with other herbal extracts, was used by Queen Victoria for the first painless birth.