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Plant Lore: Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

Image courtesy Margaret Whittaker.

With such a spooky common name and a botanical name (Atropa belladona) fit for a Harry Potter spell, deadly nightshade seems fitting for some Halloween-inspired plant lore. This highly toxic plant — a surprising cousin to the potato, eggplant, and tomato — is native to southern Eurasia and can be most easily identified by its glossy black berries. It holds a place in history for being an effective poison and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of many notable figures, including Emperor Claudius and Emperor Caesar Augustus. Shakespeare's Macbeth even used it to poison the Danish army.

Image by merlinpf courtesy iStock.

Named by Carl Linneaus, the 18th-century Swedish botanist known as the "father of modern taxonomy," Atropa is a nod to one of the Three Fates from Greek mythology, Atropos, who was responsible for severing the thread of life. Belladonna, meaning "beautiful lady" in Italian, comes from deadly nightshade's other popular use during the Renaissance. Back then, women made eye drops from the plant's extracts, which caused their pupils to dilate, giving them what was considered a more beautiful and alluring appearance.


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