Once you get past the potatoes and the other humdrum members of the family, nightshades can be fascinating plants—often frighteningly so. Whether strikingly beautiful or modestly mediocre, many belie deadly poisons, potent psychoactive effects, and grisly albeit spellbinding histories. According to one theory, they might even have wiped out the dinosaurs.
So it’s no surprise that us humans are drawn to them. Here are some of the ways we’ve put them to use over the years.
10. Witches Used Them to Fly
Lady Alice Kyteler was the first woman to be condemned for witchcraft in Ireland. Among other crimes, she was accused of murdering past husbands, making sacrifices to the devil, inciting hatred of Christians, and fornicating with a demon called Robert. When her home was investigated in 1324, inquisitors found just what you might expect to in a witch’s cupboard: raven’s eyes, worms, human hair, and the skull of a thief, along with a strange green unguent concocted from deadly poisons. These included the nightshades henbane, mandrake, and belladonna (deadly nightshade).
Long after Kyteler had fled the country for England—leaving her servant and protégé to face punishment at the stake—this same green substance was found throughout medieval Europe. Allegedly, some preparations contained the fat of stillborn babies.
Known as ‘flying ointment’, the mixture was applied in non-deadly amounts to witches’ armpits and vaginas—in the latter case using broomstick handles, upon which they “ambled and galloped” about. According to Giovanni Battista della Porta, a contemporary of Galileo, the salve’s purpose was to transport witches through the air to banquets, dances, and couplings with young men.
A hangman’s wife attested to these effects in the 16th century. Having received the ointment as an experimental remedy for insomnia from Pope Julius III’s physician, she entered a 36-hour trance in which she indulged in “all the pleasures and delights of the world.” Despite resembling a boiled hare and courting death throughout, she is said to have been disappointed when she finally came to.
The same effects were reported by the German folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert, who self-administered flying ointment in the early 1900s. Both he and a friend were swept away on near-identical journeys to parties, festivals, and mountaintop orgies with monsters.
9. Peasants Used Mandrakes for Luck
During the Middle Ages, the vaguely anthropomorphic roots of the genus Mandragora were highly coveted as lucky charms. They became so popular that traders created fakes to keep up with demand. Playing to the popular image, these counterfeit curios, carved from bryony roots instead of mandrakes, were finished off with millet beards and grass pubic hair.
Many were cared for as family members, dressed in clothes and bathed in milk to ensure prosperity and protection for the household—or at least to avoid the opposite. According to the forest magicians of 16th century Germany, losing one could mean a swift and agonizing death.
Mandrakes were also used in folk medicine in accordance with the doctrine of signatures. This was the medieval idea that God signified the uses of plants by way of their appearance. Since mandrakes were thought to resemble miniature people, for instance, infertile women tucked them their under their pillows at night in the hopes of conceiving children.
Despite their alleged benefits, few dared to actually dig mandrakes up. Not only did the Church consider them blasphemous—one of God’s failed creations—but they were said to scream when pulled from the ground. This sound, it was said, caused death or madness to those who heard it and condemned them eternally to Hell.
As far back as the 3rd century BC, people were devising ways to circumvent the curse. The ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus, for instance, outlined a method of drawing circles around the root and removing the top part while facing west, then pulling up the rest of it amid ritual dances and the recital of magical formulae. The 1st century historian Josephus Flavius, on the other hand, said that mandrakes—which glowed red at night and hid when people came near—could only be tamed with urine and menstrual blood.
A simpler method, more common in the middle ages, was to tie the top part of the root to a black dog’s tail and throw a treat on the ground in front of it. When the dog went for the treat, it pulled the root up with it.
The superstition survived even into the 20th century. In 1908, a gardener struck a bryony root while digging and, mistaking it for a mandrake, refused to dig any more. Within days, he fell down some steps and broke his neck.
8. Scots Used Belladonna in Battle
When Cnut the Great, son of Sweyn Forkbeard, died in 1035 AD, he left the three kingdoms of England, Norway, and Denmark to Harald Harefoot, Svein Knutsson, and Harthacnut (or Canute III), respectively. When Harald died in 1040, England went to Harthacnut as well, making him the ruler of two powerful kingdoms. It also provoked the jealousy of Svein, who set his sights on Scotland to expand his own influence.
By now Scotland was used to Scandinavian invasions. And when Svein landed at Fife, Macbeth raised an army to meet him. In the battle that ensued, each side sustained significant losses but Macbeth was ultimately forced to retreat. Sensing an easy victory, Svein pursued the Scottish army along the River Tay to Perth, where he planned to besiege King Duncan.
Although Macbeth was ready to push back with reinforcements, an urgent message from the king brought him to a halt. According to Bancho—Duncan’s top military commander—the Scots were not going to retaliate. They were going to surrender. Messengers were sent back and forth to negotiate Duncan’s retreat.
After some time, in response to Svein’s refusal of anything less than unconditional surrender, Duncan made an offer of ale and wine to the Norwegian camp. Svein was amused at the king’s apparent weakness but also reasonably suspicious. He accepted the offer on the condition that those delivering the supplies drank first.
He was right to be cautious. The beverages were all poisoned with dwale, or belladonna berry juice. However, since the deliriant effects of the deadly nightshade have a delayed onset and appear outwardly similar to drunkenness anyway, Svein and his men were reassured. They merrily indulged in Duncan’s ‘cup o’ kindness’.
Meanwhile, Macbeth’s army entered the camp to the rear while Bancho stationed his men on the roads around it, preventing escape. When the berries took effect, Macbeth and his men attacked.
Hopelessly lost in delirium, the Norwegians were easily slain. Those less afflicted were capable of only a chaotic and terrified resistance. Svein himself was also heavily intoxicated but a number of his closest guards were not. They threw him over a baggage horse and hastily rode to the shore. When they found their fleet in ruin, they frantically heaped him onto a rowing boat and haphazardly fled to sea.
When news of Svein’s humiliation reached Harthacnut, he sent an army of his own to retaliate. But the Scots were ready and waiting, emboldened by their recent victory. They dispatched them all with ease and the Scandinavians never returned.
Of course, Macbeth would later kill Duncan himself but that’s another story.
7. Romans Used Belladonna to Kill
The Atropa genus of plants, of which belladonna is the best known, is named for Atropos, the eldest of the Three Greek Fates. While her sisters Clotho and Lachesis spun and allotted the “thread of life” to humanity, Atropos used her “abhorred shears” to cut it.
It’s a fitting derivation. Even a small dose of deadly nightshade is likely to cause death—though not before delirious confusion, feverish convulsions, and terrifying, demonic hallucinations. Belladonna has also been implicated in a number of ancient murders, including that of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, by his third wife Livia.
So prevalent was the use of plant toxins in Rome that expert botanists could attain fame and fortune as professional mixers of poison. The most notorious of these was Locusta.
Counting the emperors Claudius and Nero among her clientele, Locusta received great wealth and estates for her work. Later in her career, having poisoned Claudius at his wife’s request and his son Brittanicus at Nero’s, she was given students to teach and human guinea pigs to practice on.
The ancients used toxic nightshades for other reasons too. Yellow henbane, for instance, was burned and inhaled by prophets such as Pythia, the Oracle at Delphi, as a means of entering trance states. The plant was variously described as Zeus’s beans, Apollo’s plant, and, in the earth oracle of Gaia, the dragon’s herb.
6. Authorities Used Them in the World’s First ‘Truth Serum’
When it was introduced in the early 20th century, Dämmerschlaf, or ‘twilight sleep’, was hailed as the dawning of “a new era for woman and through her for the whole human race.” The treatment, given to women in labor, was meant to eliminate the pain of childbirth. In practice, it merely shut down the working memory. In other words, women remained awake and in visible agony during labor but, since they couldn’t remember it afterward, physicians described it as “painless.”
The treatment was so effective at preventing the formation of memories that even after the effects wore off, many asked when they were due to begin. Most didn’t even realize they’d just given birth.
The key ingredient of twilight sleep was scopolamine, a compound found only in certain nightshades. These include Scopolia tangutica, Hyoscyamus, Datura, Duboisia, and Brugmansia. It’s one of two chemicals involved in their potent psychoactive effects, as well as their deadly toxicity.
In the early 1900s, while administering the treatment to patients, obstetrician Robert House noticed another interesting attribute. Not only did scopolamine block the formation of memories, it also increased suggestibility and compliance. Convinced that lying was impossible on the drug, he believed it could be used to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted prisoners.
And he was more or less right. Having demonstrated a 75-85% success rate in eliciting honest answers from convicts, he went on to get some of them acquitted. Most had no memory of being interrogated, let alone of what information they divulged. But the world’s first ‘truth serum’ gained traction. One man accused of murder got off simply because the witnesses for the prosecution refused to be questioned under its influence. Reports also emerged of police officers threatening suspects with scopolamine to provoke compliance out of fear.
In the years that followed, scopolamine was used by the Nazis, the Soviets, and the CIA. But it remained more than anything else a deadly poison. Those under the influence of the drug showed all the signs of dangerous tropane alkaloid poisoning, including respiratory difficulties, thick speech, and hot, dry skin. Its use for interrogation was officially discontinued in 1963.
5. Thieves Use Scopolamine for Mind Control
In Colombia, scopolamine goes by another name: burundanga. Thanks to harrowing travel warnings and coverage by the media, it’s also known as ‘devil’s breath’ and the ‘world’s scariest drug’.
Exploiting its capacity for mind control, criminals are said to drop scopolamine into people’s drinks or simply blow it into their faces. In less than a minute, victims will pretty much do as they’re told, even at the merest suggestion. Typically this means emptying their bank account and handing over the cash. Since they don’t seem intoxicated, they don’t arouse suspicion.
According to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council, roughly 50,000 scopolamine incidents occur each year in Colombia. The majority of cases involve young, attractive women targeting wealthy-looking men. And as if the mind control and theft weren’t bad enough, there’s also the risk of death. Just one gram is said to be enough to kill 15 people.
4. Vodou Bokors Use Datura to Make Zombies
Zombies are common in Haiti—so much so that zombification is a crime under the Haitian Penal Code. The best known case is that of Clairvius Narcisse, who returned to his family 18 years after his apparent ‘death’ and burial. According to his account, he was captured by a Vodou sorcerer, or bokor, and forced to work with other zombies on a sugar plantation. The bokor used Datura to keep them all in a living dead state with no will of their own until one day he was killed with a hoe.
Aside from their reappearance after prolonged absences, there are some common traits by which zombies can be recognized. These include slow, stiff movements, incomprehensible or monosyllabic speech, and the inability to carry out basic tasks like feeding themselves. Victims tend to be singled out for zombification by people they know—often wronged family members—who enlist the bokors for revenge.
The zombie powders used in the process contain various combinations of ground-up toads, tree frogs, snakes, lizards, centipedes, sea worms, and human remains. However the crucial ingredient is pufferfish poison (tetrodotoxin), which simulates death via paralysis. Another important ingredient is tarantula hair. Placed into victims’ shoes, down their backs, or into open wounds, these urticating hairs cause scratching to the point of bloodshed, ensuring the powder’s absorption.
When they’re officially ‘dead’ and buried, zombification victims are disinterred by the bokor, beaten, gagged, and forced to do their new master’s bidding.
3. Native Americans Use Datura for Death (and Rebirth)
In Mexico, Datura is better known as toloache and has long been connected with death. Said to be inhabited by a malevolent plant spirit—in contrast to the benevolent spirit of peyote—the Aztecs are said to have given it to human sacrifices before tearing out their hearts. In Colombia it was fed, along with Brugmansia sanguinea (bloodred angel’s trumpet), to dead men’s widows and slaves before burial alive with the deceased.
Associations between nightshades and death are common in the Americas. The Andean Quechua Indians, for instance, who consume datura to locate ancestors’ graves, refer to the plant as huaca, or ‘tomb’. The Jívaro and Shuar peoples of Ecuador and Peru, meanwhile, are said to feed Brugmansia to misbehaved children, allowing visions of their ancestors to frighten them into line.
Datura and Brugmansia have also been used in life-threatening rites of passage. Youths of the Southern Californian Tübatulabal tribe consume the poisonous roots to “obtain life” – that is, to acquire a ghost and gain immortality. The Shuar use the plants to meet the supreme deity Arutam, who appears in diabolically frightening forms. Examples include a giant jaguar with burning eyes, a flaming head that falls from the sky, a pair of intertwined giant anacondas, or a dismembered body with sentient, crawling limbs.
Adolescent boys of the Algonquin have an even tougher rite of passage in store: getting locked up for weeks with nothing to eat but Datura. Only once they’ve (literally) forgotten what it means to be children and (hopefully) learned what it is to be men are they allowed to rejoin their families.
2. Tantric Sorcerers Use Datura for Magic
In the black magic rites of Buddhist and Hindu esotericism, or Tantra, Datura is one of “the supreme destroyers of all the Buddhas.” According to the Guhyasamaja Tantra, it’s possible to destroy one’s enemies by shaping their likeness out of excrement and “wrathfully [burning]it in a fire of thorn-wood [Datura].” To make a man insane, the effigy can be held over Datura smoke, touched to the tongue with a Brahmin-bone dagger, and buried in the earth. Another ritual, from the Vajramahabhairava Tantra, involves mixing Datura seedpods with human flesh and worm-eaten sawdust. Fed to the victim while reciting a mantra, this is said to cause immediate insanity, followed by death within seven days.
Even the Kamasutra mentions Datura. Any man wishing to enslave his sexual partner is advised to anoint his penis with Datura-infused honey.
This notorious nightshade is heavily connected with Shiva, a deity frequently depicted with its flowers in his hair. Datura is regularly offered to Shiva in ceremonies and, on Maha Shivaratri, the night of Shiva, yogis are known to smoke it.
Of all the Shiva devotees, the most knowledgeable about Datura are the feared Aghori sadhus. While tripping on Datura cooked in ghee, this Tantric sect perform rituals among the dead, drink alcohol from skulls, and smear themselves with human cremains. One of their core beliefs is that since Shiva created everything nothing can be unholy.
According to one cautionary tale, a group of self-proclaimed Aghori sadhus gave Datura to a young French traveller who sought them out in India. Allegedly, they kept her in a zombified state for years, forcing her to beg on the streets and using her for sex.
1. Psychonauts Use Datura to Trip
Better known as jimson weed, Datura often sees use outside of traditional contexts. For those daring enough to try it, the experience is one of terrifying visions, crawling insects, and bleeding or crumbling environments. But these aren’t hallucinations in the traditional sense. On Datura, visions are immersive, solid, and seemingly real—indistinguishable from anything else. In many cases, they can even be touched.
It’s not uncommon, for instance, to hear of long conversations with friends who suddenly and inexplicably disappear. One experimenter searched for 30 minutes when his friend turned into a field and vanished. Another’s simply stopped moving and turned into a tree. One man who lived alone found himself with a whole apartment full of people he’d never met, complete with odors of sweat and perfume and realistic, imaginary food.
Some visions are altogether more sinister. Following a sense of growing unease, one user turned around to see a woman staring at him from the corner of his room, standing in the dark by his only way out. Another experimenter described his horror at being inundated by hissing and chattering spiders the size of car tires. At one point, he even felt drool on the back of his neck, followed by what seemed like a leg.
Another dabbler was forced to wade through vomit two feet deep, blood gushing from his underwear as he watched a younger version of himself being scolded by his father. Yet another tried to escape the horror by closing his eyes, only to find himself in another hellish and unfamiliar room. And this happened each time he opened or closed his eyes in a seemingly endless succession.
It would be easy to dismiss these as dreams were those having them not wide awake at the time. One teenager, for instance, ran for miles through dense forest to escape the spirit of the plant and its vampire-like devotees. Along the way, he sustained lacerations and other injuries. Ultimately, he was chased right into the middle of a busy road where he was picked up by a good samaritan rather than hit and killed.
Not only is Datura frightening, it’s also pretty deadly. Body temperatures can easily reach beyond 106 degrees Fahrenheit and heart rates more than 180 bpm. Most trips end at the hospital. But the horrors don’t end there. Faced with deranged and sometimes violent patients with an unknown poison in their system, nurses typically respond with restraints and stomach pumps. Inevitably, they become grotesque and demonic torturers in the process. Since Datura can also make it hard to pee, it’s sometimes necessary to insert a catheter as well, with all of the pain that entails.
While the trip isn’t always so diabolical, few who try Datura recommend the experience to others. In fact, some may take years to recover. That said, almost everyone finds it to be a life-changing or at least eye-opening ordeal. Some even claim to have overcome the fear of death through the experience—although that’s hardly surprising given how dangerously close they come.