Sandy’s Garden ... Belladonna

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I visit the charming town of Garda on the shore of Lake Garda … Lago di Garda, if one wishes to be a tad pretentious … at least once every year and more often if opportunity arises.

I have done this for almost every one of the past 31 years; and I always stay in the same family-owned, comfort-sized, excellent hotel where staff tend to stay for many years. Given that I can expect to meet many of the staff on my next visit, and given that they enjoy posing for group photographs … the restaurant team, the kitchen crew, the housekeepers and so on … copies of which I send them, I aim to keep a reference copy with my holiday photographs, a reference copy in which I record the individual names to refresh my failing memory prior to my next visit. I was in the middle of undertaking this pleasurable task when the name of one of the wait staff stubbornly refused to come to mind. A quadri-syllabic word, my brain insisted (Now who’s being pretentious? – Ed.) favouring ‘Belladonna’. No, no, no, my conscious self argued, it’s not Belladonna, it’s the same forename as what’s-her-name Versace, it’s, it’s … Donatella! And, just for the record, it is.

But, having entered my stream of consciousness, the word ‘belladonna’ refused to leave. Thus the theme for this column became belladonna, a plant which, according to Collins guide to Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain & Europe is a bushy perennial growing to a height of 1.5 metres … say, 5 feet in old money … with tall, erect stems. It flowers during July and August, later producing shiny, black, cherry-sized berries. It is found throughout much of Europe and Asia, although it seldom strays outside central and eastern England in the UK. Belladonna is a source of alkaloids - organic compounds which have pronounced physiological actions on humans, including many drugs such as morphine and quinine and poisons like atropine and strychnine. And when I reveal, gentle reader, that belladonna’s pukka botanical name is Atropa belladonna … Atropos being one of the Fates of classical Greek mythology who were responsible for determining when each mortal would die … you will realise that the poisonous alkaloid atropine comes from this ‘beautiful woman’.

But, to return to the Collins guide, I read there that belladonna is used to treat cramp-like intestinal and urinary pains and in homeopathy is regarded as a treatment for headaches. This latter use may be permanently effective, for the next entry reads: Deadly poisonous. Do not use. Small wonder, then, that belladonna is perhaps better-known to us under its common name ‘deadly nightshade’. The resolution of the apparent contradiction of describing a deadly poisonous plant as possessing valuable healing qualities lies in the strength of the atropine used by the herbalist; very well diluted and in skilled hands, it can be beneficial; too concentrated and it will readily kill. And the moral of this lesson is: don’t dabble with it!

So how did it come by its name ‘beautiful woman’? Greek and Roman women of classical times used to dilute the juice from the berries in water and drop a couple of beads of the resultant liquid into their eyes to dilate the pupils and make themselves appear more beautiful. (Don’t do this!) Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the Greek women worshippers of the god Dionysus … the god of wine, of ritual madness and religious ecstasy among other things … added deadly nightshade juice to their wine before embarking on sometimes murderous orgies, belladonna found favour with witches throughout Europe many centuries later; and the temptingly-good-to-eat appearance of the berries led to them being given the child-deterring name ‘witches’ berries’. I for one am not sorry that belladonna is seldom found in Scotland; and it should never find a place in anyone’s garden.