Deadly nightshade: planting, flowering & uses of belladonna


I studied Biology and Horticultural Science. I love plants that grow in the wild and in gardens, especially those that are edible. In fact, my favourite pastime is visiting forests and city parks to see which useful plants they hide - you just need to know how to spot the ones that are valuable in the kitchen.
My passion for foraging also pairs perfectly with my second hobby: cooking!

Favourite fruits: figs, persimmons and juneberries
Favourite vegetables: pumpkin, savoy cabbage and shallots

Belladonna or deadly nightshade is a real eye-catcher in forests. Despite its beautiful appearance, you should be careful with this wild plant because it is highly poisonous.

belladonna fruit close up
Belladonna tempts us with its purple-black fruit [Photo: I. Rottlaender/]

Belladonna (Atropa bella-donna), also known as deadly nightshade, has a seductive effect on some forest visitors. Its purple berries and flowers will entice you to plant this perennial in your home garden. But beware – although this forest beauty is a real bee pasture, it is also highly poisonous. Therefore, it should only be planted in the garden with caution.

Deadly nightshade: flowering, origin and characteristics

Deadly nightshade, belladonna, or devil’s cherry, among other names, is the only native Atropa species in Europe. Deadly nightshade belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is widely distributed in Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor. It is usually found in semi-shaded to light-shaded forest clearings, where it thrives in nutrient-rich and nitrogenous soil. As a perennial herb, belladonna usually grows upright and reaches heights between 50 and 150 cm. Branched belladonna bush has a reddish-green and finely haired stem.

Belladonna bush
The branched deadly nightshade can grow up to 1.5 m in height [Photo: Przemyslaw Muszynski/]

Belladonna leaves are oval-lanceolate in shape, grey-green in colour and also finely haired. During its flowering period between July and August, Atropa bella-donna displays bell-shaped flowers, which are purple-brown on the outside – especially at the tip – and yellowish at the base. According to its name, a black-purple berry fruit develops from the flower of belladonna between August and October. Despite its toxicity, Atropa bella-donna is highly valuable to the ecosystem. Its flowers are visited and pollinated by bumblebees, bees and even butterflies. In addition, the fruit of belladonna serves as food for various birds.

Purple belladonna flowers
Belladonna can be recognised by its unusually coloured flower, even without fruit [Photo: Simon Groewe/]

Identification characteristics of Atropa belladonna

  • Upright growing, branched herb measuring 50 – 150 cm in height
  • Reddish-green stem and finely haired with branched shoots
  • Grey-green coloured leaves, hairy with oval-lanceolate shape
  • Flower mostly purple coloured and bell-shaped
  • Black and purple-coloured berry resembling a cherry fruit

Plants similar to deadly nightshade

If a purple-black berry catches your eye in the forest or garden that seems unfamiliar, it is best not to eat it. For there are plants whose fruit can be mistaken for the poisonous belladonna:

  • Huckleberry/blueberry (Vaccinium spec.)
Wild blueberry
The wild blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) in particular resembles belladonna in shape and colour [Photo: FotograFFF/]
  • Aronia (Aronia melanocarpa)
Aronia berries
Although the chokeberry (Aronia) is not native to Europe, it still appears in gardens [Photo: Melica/]
  • Jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrolaria)
The leaves of the jostaberry are clearly different from those of the deadly nightshade [Photo: romiri/]
  • Sweet cherry (Prunus avium)
Sweet cherries
Sweet cherries usually hang from woody branches and have a red tinge [Photo: Wut_Moppie/]

Can you plant belladonna?

Young belladonna plants are often difficult to find. However, it is possible to purchase the seeds and grow it yourself. However, it is not recommended to plant the poisonous belladonna in the garden. Since the shiny black fruit of belladonna looks very tasty and also tastes good, there is a risk of children in particular snacking on it. It is not for nothing that belladonna was named ‘Poisonous Plant of the Year’ in 2020.

Belladonna bush
Belladonna can grow up to 150 cm tall [Photo: “Bertold Werkmann ”/]

Tip: some birds actually use belladonna as a food source as they are immune to the plant’s poison.

Deadly nightshade uses

In ancient times and in the Middle Ages Atropa belladonna was attributed to have certain effects on the psyche. Even back then, it was noticed that its hallucinogenic ingredients induce rabid and excited states of mind, as well as causing dizziness, insomnia and local paralysis. Those who died from consuming belladonna were described as having a blue tinge and swollen corpses. Later, these observed effects of belladonna were medically documented and confirmed.

Despite the drastic effects of Atropa belladonna on the human body, many women used belladonna as a cosmetic to dilate pupils. Nowadays, belladonna is used as a therapeutic agent in medicine. Although its alkaloids can excite parts of the human central nervous system and paralyse the peripheral, they have antispasmodic effects. Therefore, very low doses can be used to treat epilepsy or asthma, but also for colic as well as constipation. For diagnostic purposes and visual impairments, belladonna is administered in ophthalmology in the form of eye drops. Thus, in addition to its high toxicity, belladonna as a medicinal plant is also a valued phytotherapeutic. Never attempt to take it without medical professional care because natural products can contain fluctuating amounts of active ingredients and an overdose of belladonna can be fatal.

Belladonna remedies
Belladonna is used as a potent therapeutic in very small doses [Photo: MilanMarkovic78/]

How poisonous is belladonna?

Belladonna is highly toxic. Its toxin hyoscyamine can cause heart palpitations, respiratory distress and respiratory paralysis, among other things. After consumption of belladonna, symptoms may appear after only a quarter of an hour – starting with an increase in pulse, accompanied by the urge to talk as well as laugh – followed by redness of the skin, dry mucous membranes and visual disturbances. The initial excitement may increase to hallucinations, which in turn subside into said paralyses. This is accompanied by a narcosis-like sleep that can be fatal. Here, a mortality rate of about 10% is assumed. Depending on the individual, eating as few as 10 berries can be fatal for an adult. In children and dogs and cats, as few as 3 to 5 berries can cause death. Since the entire plant including leaves, stem, flower and roots is poisonous and its toxins can even be absorbed through the skin, belladonna should not be touched without gloves.