Plants That Kill: Deadly nightshade, black henbane & witchcraft

Adapted from page 81 of Plants That Kill:

Deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) is a herbaceous perennial that dies back to a rootstock every year but can grow into a substantial plant during the summer. Attractive, juicy black berries follow its solitary bell-shaped purplish flowers, and conspicuous green sepals form a star at the base. Deadly nightshade grows naturally in Europe, west Asia and north Africa. In northern Europe it is particularly found on chalky soils and close to former abbeys and monasteries, where it was grown as a medicinal plant during the Middle Ages.

Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is native to much of Eurasia and is now widely distributed in temperate regions. Photo credit: A_lya, Shutterstock.

Deadly nightshade is just one of the tropane alkaloid-containing plants that are inextricably linked to tales of witchcraft. Together with mandrakes (Mandragora spp.) and henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.), it is said to have been an ingredient of an ointment used by witches to give them the sensation of flying, and is why witches are often depicted on broomsticks. 

One of the most recent deaths from deadly nightshade, of which there are actually very few, was of a modern-day witch who went by the name of Robert Cochrane. He lived in Slough, United Kingdom, where he started a coven known as the Clan of Tubal Cain, based on a combination of Celtic mysticism and village witchcraft philosophy (American branches are known as the ‘1734 tradition’). Cochrane died nine days after the eve of the summer solstice in 1966, seemingly after having ingested deadly nightshade leaves and sleeping tablets. The inquest into his death returned a verdict of suicide with deadly nightshade. In some witchcraft circles it is believed that Cochrane had appointed himself as a male sacrifice.

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more


This post is part of a series, explore additional posts herePlants That Kill: The Little Apple of Death >>