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Introduction to Medicinal Nightshades

By Sarah Lawless

Many of us are familiar with edible nightshades as they are such a common part of our diet and include veggies like potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Most people are less familiar, however, with the uses of medicinal nightshade plants like belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake which are famous for being the main ingredients of witches' flying ointments. Those who have heard of them usually know them as noxious weeds, deadly poisons, or magical herbs of fantasy like the screaming mandrake roots from Harry Potter. Medicinal nightshades are very real and have a long and storied history of medicinal and ceremonial use going back into prehistory.

Extracts of their potent alkaloids (such as atropine) are still used today in hospitals, veterinary clinics, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. They have been a part of human culture for as long as cannabis and have evolved with us as well. Like plaintain, nightshades grow where humans travel. They've followed us across the Earth. They can be found in China, Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe, Northern Europe, the British Isles, Ireland, North America, Central and South America... Everywhere belladonna, brugmansia, datura, henbane, and mandrake are found, the indigenous people use them for medicine, ritual, folk magic, and sorcery.

Nightshades belong to the Solanaceae plant family which includes a large variety of vines, herbs, shrubs, trees, vegetables, flowers, and spices. It is a very important plant family, but its potent medicinal members of belladonna, brugmansia, datura, henbane, and mandrake are often forgotten or unused in modern herbalism because, firstly, their applications and preparations are rarely taught in schools of Traditional Western Herbalism, secondly, they can be rare and hard to source if you don't live in their native habitat or grow them yourself, and thirdly, there is a lot of fear and propaganda surrounding their poisonous and hallucinogenic properties. It is my goal as a herbalist who has worked with these potent plant allies for the past decade to help dispel the fear and misinformation as well as educate people about the multi-purpose uses of these powerful herbs.

When dosed and prepared properly as a salve by an experienced herbalist and applied externally, medicinal nightshades can be used with the same safety as ibuprofen or a rub-on analgesic. Use them as needed, but don't go overboard. Give yourself breaks so your body doesn't build up too much of a tolerance and the medicine becomes less and less effective as with any medicine.

Yes belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake are poisonous and psychoactive, but so are tobacco, alcohol, and coffee! After a few years of continuing to make my nightshade ointments any fear my customers initially had went away and was replaced with feedback such as: "This stuff really works!" and "My fears were unfounded once I started using it for my arthritis." Since I started making and selling my nightshade ointments I have been interviewed by university professors, podcasters, written articles and monographs for journals, and presented at herbal and spiritual conferences on the subject of nightshades and flying ointments. I am currently working on a book, an eBook, and an eCourse to further continue my goal of rebirthing the traditional uses of nightshade medicine.

What Can Nightshade Medicine Do For You?

The medicinal members of the nightshade (or solanaceae) family are some of the most potent drugs we have available to us on the planet and extracts of their alkaloids such as atropine are still incredibly important in modern medicine for which belladonna, datura, and brugmansia are grown on an industrial scale to be turned into pharmaceuticals used today to treat severe gastro-intestinal issues, motion sickness, nausea and vomiting after surgery, and are made into injections to premedicate patients before operations as a pain-killer, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory. The herbs I use in my ointments (belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake) are aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antisialagogue, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. For a herbalist, it's an incredible range of useful actions that can help people with many different types and levels of pain, mental health issues, and sleep issues.

Medicinal nightshades relieve inflammation, muscle spasms, as well as acute and chronic pain. Plants that are narcotic and sedative help with falling and staying asleep. Antisialagogue/anticholinergic medicines help with dizziness, gastro-intestinal issues, asthma, bronchitis, and insomnia. Used externally, however, a nightshade ointment will only help with insomnia and cramping, not respiratory problems or bowel issues. 

As euphoric plants, the solanaceae aren’t just medicine for physical pain, they are also medicine for the soul. Friends and patrons alike use the ointments to treat anxiety, frayed nerves, and depression which often go hand in hand with chronic pain and sleep issues. Because of their applications, medicinal nightshades can be used instead of cannabis and opiates. Everyone is different, so they won't work the same for everyone, but if they work for you they are a legal and non-addictive option for those looking to soothe the body and soul.

Medicinal nightshades are not safe to use long-term when ingested. The body builds up a tolerance to the tropane alkaloids, but the heart does not and one can unintentionally poison themselves -- even when following the dosages on the tincture bottle. The safest way to prepare and use poisonous nightshade plants as medicine is to infuse them in oil or lard to make a topical ointment.

Our Herbs

These are the cultivated and wild herbs I use in my flying ointments. Each one has a storied ancient history of use in early medicine, ceremony, and pharmacology. Poisonous plants were once common remedies for many serious issues, but the knowledge of their dosage and manufacture using the whole plants was lost until now. Through history these plants have been used as traditional medicines to help with arthritis, rheumatism, tendonitis, bursitis, Parkinson's, fibromyalgia, sciatica, nerve pain, muscle pain, muscle spasms, muscle cramps, and motion sickness. Medicinal nightshades have the ability to relax the nervous system, reduce physical and mental stress, and induce sleep. Larger doses have been used to help with anxiety, depression, and loss of libido.

It is my goal to reintroduce the medicinal members of the Solanaceae plant family as powerful tools and allies of herbal medicine and it is my hope to see more of these plants grown in gardens and more knowledge being shared of their medicinal applications and how to prepare them safely. The more medicinal nightshades are used in herbalism and the more common place they become, the less fear will surround their poisonous properties resulting in a greater ability for their medicine to help people.

Belladonna

Genus: Atropa

Species: Atropa belladonna

Medicinal Constituents: atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolomine.

Medicinal Actions: aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, and hypnotic/sedative.

Medicinal Preparation: a topical ointment meant for external use only.

Safety Info: 

Signs of allergic reaction include an irregular heartbeat and vomiting along with feeling warm, sweaty, dizzy, and nauseated. If you feel this way, wash the area of your skin where you applied an oil or ointment, drink lots of water, and rest. The effects can take 4-6 hours to wear off. If you do not feel better, go to the hospital.

Adverse effects of external use can include dry mouth, blurry vision, short-term memory loss, and mental confusion. Belladonna is sedative, do not use while driving or operating machinery.

There is no evidence that belladonna is unsafe for use while pregnant or breastfeeding, but with this plant it is better to be safe than sorry as and forgo its use until your child is weaned.

Medicinal Uses:

Used externally to treat muscle and joint pain and is especially effective at treating back pain, muscle spasms, muscle cramps, pulled muscles, tense muscles and nerves, sciatica, pulled and torn tendons, tendonitis and bursitis, carpal tunnel, arthritis, rheumatism, pain and bruising after surgical procedures, and the pain of menstrual cramps. Belladonna is a nervine relaxant and has the ability to calm the nerves, reduce physical and psychological tension, and directly affect the nervous system to induce sleep.

An external oil or ointment rubbed into the temples, neck, and shoulders will help one relax and fall asleep. If applied to the affected area 1-2 hours before bedtime it can help you sleep through chronic pain or the pain of a recent injury. When used externally as a sedative, belladonna has the added benefit of providing visually stimulating but pleasant dreams.

Datura

Genus: Datura

Species: Datura stramonium and Datura innoxia

Medicinal Constituents: scopolamine and hyoscyamine

Medicinal Actions: analgesic, anticholinergic, anti-rheumatic, antispasmodic, anti-emetic, nervine relaxant, and hypnotic/sedative.

Medicinal Preparation: a topical ointment meant for external use only.

Safety Info:

Do not use when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Datura medicine should not be used by the very elderly due to the high concentration of scopolamine which can interact badly with their other medications and also increase the likelihood of negative side effects.

Side effects can include dry mouth, drowsiness, and mental fog. Adverse effects can include mental confusion and short-term amnesia.

Datura can cause tachycardia and should not be used by those with heart disease. Datura should not be used by people suffering from glaucoma. In general solanaceae should not be used as medicine for those who have weak hearts, weakened immune systems, liver issues, and kidney disease –but datura even more so.

Medicinal Uses:

Datura ointment is very effective at treating deep tissue and bone pains, especially when it comes to treating the pain of muscles, tendons, joints and bones. It is the most effective of the nightshade ointments for relieving bone on bone pain and is our customers' choice for both types of arthritis, bone and joint pain, fibromyalgia pain & inflammation, as well as the pain of healing broken bones or poorly healed old injuries. Datura can penetrate deeper into the body than belladonna to target an issue. Ancient cultures like the Aztecs used datura poultices and possibly ointments to treat broken bones and fractures.

Datura is a nervine relaxant and has the ability to calm the nerves, reduce physical and psychological tension, and directly affect the nervous system to induce sleep. Datura’s sedative effects can help to relieve anxiety, stress, and panic attacks, but keep in mind ointments can take up to two hours to take effect and will wear off in 4-6 hours. Re-apply every 4-5 hours on bad days.

Henbane

Genus: Hyoscyamus

Species: Hyoscyamus niger

Medicinal Constituents: hyoscyamine, scopolamine, atropine

Medicinal Actions: analgesic, anticholinergic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, anti-emetic, nervine relaxant, and hypnotic/sedative.

Medicinal Preparation: a topical ointment meant for external use only.

Safety Info:

Though henbane has the same properties as belladonna, datura, and mandrake, it is less intense in its side effects. Allergies to henbane generally present as itchy rashes on the skin, or if ingested, an itchy mouth, throat, and ears. Allergic reactions are not common, however.

Henbane should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as the alkaloids have been shown to cross from the blood into the placenta as well as breast milk.

Side effects of use can include dry mouth, farsightedness, loss of coordination, and drowsiness. Adverse effects include mental confusion, short-term amnesia, and drunkenness.

Medicinal Uses:

Black henbane is an excellent pain reliever for sore muscles and joints, stiffness, bruising, and other injuries that have not broken the skin. An ointment can be rubbed on the abdomen for menstrual cramping or used similarly for muscle cramps. It is also a traditional remedy to prevent motion sickness.Try using the ointment two hours before you travel. 

Henbane is a sedative and nervine relaxant and has the ability to calm the nerves, reduce physical and psychological tension, and directly affect the nervous system to induce sleep. In Dioscorides' Materia Medica written 2000 years ago, he lists henbane ointment as being very effective for treating anxiety and frayed nerves and our customers have found this to be true in practice.

Mandrake

Genus: Mandragora

Species: Mandragora officinarum

Medicinal Constituents: scopolamine, atropine, hyoscyamine, and mandragorine.

Medicinal Actions: analgesic, anticholinergic, antispasmodic, anesthetic, aphrodisiac, euphoric, nervine relaxant, and hypnotic/sedative.

Medicinal Preparation: a topical ointment meant for external use only.

Safety Info:

Do not use if pregnant or breastfeeding.

Mandrake can cause increase one’s heart rate and should be avoided by those with heart disease or who have recently suffered a heart attack. It should also be avoided by those with kidney disease. Side effects can include dry mouth, dry mucous membranes, dilated pupils, flushed cheeks, farsightedness, a fast heartbeat, and sometimes muscle weakness.

Mandrake is the only medicinal nightshade herb we use that is safe to come in contact with mucous membranes. It makes it the better choice for sensual massage.

Medicinal Uses:

It is often confused with American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) which is not actually related to the Mandragora genus and in medicine the two are not created equal.

Though mandrake is a gentler medicine than datura, its scopolamine content lends itself just as well to treating severe pain caused by injuries and chronic conditions. It excels at relieving muscle and joint pain and is the most effective medicinal nightshade for treating migraines. Apply a mandrake ointment to the temples, the forehead, the back of the neck, and the shoulders. The person should then lie down in a dark room and allow time for rest and recovery.

Many of my clients and friends have successfully used mandrake root as an antidepressant. It’s effectiveness in this area seems to go beyond simply its euphoric attribute. A study is very much needed to show which of the alkaloids or combination thereof helps with depression and why. In the meantime, we have some validation from ancient physicians for mandrake’s use in treating anxiety and depression in early texts such as The Hippocratic Corpus.

While mandrake is well-known as a very effective sedative, for some people it can have a stimulating effect instead where they feel like they have been given a burst of restless energy. 

I also recommend mandrake for loss of libido. It can be applied two hours before love-making and the aphrodisiac effects can last for 4-6 hours.

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Recommended Books

Encyclopedia of Pyschoactive Plants by Christian Ratsch

Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History by Jonathan Ott

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Christian Ratsch, Wolf Dieter-Storl, and

Witches' Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic by Thomas Hastis

The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth