Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Deadly nightshade

According to Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles, ed. 3, 2010: 573, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) which occurs in woods, scrub, rough and cultivated ground, locally frequent in central and southern England where it is probably native, and scattered in Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles where it probably survives as a relic of cultivation  for medicinal uses.

As is well-known, and as its standard English name suggests, deadly nightshade is one of  most poisonous plants found in the British Isles; according to W.A. Leighton’s A Flora of Shropshire, 1841: 107:  ‘the whole plant is poisonous and the most effective remedy against its deadly operation is to administer copious amounts of vinegar and prevent the patient from sleeping.’

Despite this notoriety deadly nightshade has attracted little folklore in the British Isles.  The Local Names page on this website lists 19 names, most of which draw attention to the plant’s poisonous properties:  devil’s berries, devil’s cherries, devil’s herb, devil’s rhubarb, naughty-man’s cherries and satan’s cherries.  No information on the species has been submitted to Plant-lore Archive.

David Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield in their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004: 197, point out that the name deadly nightshade is shared with bittersweet (also known as woody nightshade, Solanum dulcamara) and they suggest that any records of deadly nightshade being used in folk remedies refer to the Solanum rather than Atropa.  Of the latter they write: ‘its notoriously ultra-poisonous character (three berries are sufficient to kill a child) firmly excluded it from the folk repertory.’

According to Clive Harper in Folklore, 88 (1977) ingredients of the ‘magic unguent bestowing the power of flight’ to witches included deadly nightshade, aconite (Aconitum napellus), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.), smallage (Apium graveolens), bats’ blood and the fat of young children.  Of these deadly nightshade and aconite have psychotropic effects, and it is recorded that hallucinations induced by the nightshade include ‘delusions of location’ – making the takers believe that they have changed location.  Thus witches did not physically fly, but experienced the illusion of flight.

A letter published in the following volume of Folklore challenged this conclusion:  the absorption of drugs through the skin is unreliable and a large area of skin would need to be covered with the ointment to ensure absorption.  And, anyway, aconite is more likely to cause instantaneous death than hallucinations.

Harper retaliated in Folklore 90 (1979).  According to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) the ointments were applied and ‘then they rubbe all parts of their bodies, till they look red, and verie hot’.  This Harper argued would ensure efficient absorption of hallucinogens.

After reading all three notes two comments can be added.  Efficient absorption of hallucinogens was probably not important.  If they worked occasionally, and people believed they worked, they could experience the illusion of flight.  The response of individuals to many drugs is partly dependent on their belief in the efficacy of those drugs.  And, if the ointment is smeared on broomsticks which the witch then straddles as shown in many illustrations, it is possible that ointment is rubbed into the vagina, which might effectively absorb it.

Image:  main,  Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent June 2015; inset, Whitstable, Kent, August 2022.

Updated 9 August 2022.