Introduction to Medicinal Nightshades

By Sarah Lawless

Many of us are familiar with edible nightshades as they are such a common part of our diet and include veggies like potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Most people are less familiar, however, with the uses of medicinal nightshade plants like belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake which are famous for being the main ingredients of witches' flying ointments. Those who have heard of them usually know them as noxious weeds, deadly poisons, or magical herbs of fantasy like the screaming mandrake roots from Harry Potter. Medicinal nightshades are very real and have a long and storied history of medicinal and ceremonial use going back into prehistory.

Extracts of their potent alkaloids (such as atropine) are still used today in hospitals, veterinary clinics, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. They have been a part of human culture for as long as cannabis and have evolved with us as well. Like plaintain, nightshades grow where humans travel. They've followed us across the Earth. They can be found in China, Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe, Northern Europe, the British Isles, Ireland, North America, Central and South America... Everywhere belladonna, brugmansia, datura, henbane, and mandrake are found, the indigenous people use them for medicine, ritual, folk magic, and sorcery.

Nightshades belong to the Solanaceae plant family which includes a large variety of vines, herbs, shrubs, trees, vegetables, flowers, and spices. It is a very important plant family, but its potent medicinal members of belladonna, brugmansia, datura, henbane, and mandrake are often forgotten or unused in modern herbalism because, firstly, their applications and preparations are rarely taught in schools of Traditional Western Herbalism, secondly, they can be rare and hard to source if you don't live in their native habitat or grow them yourself, and thirdly, there is a lot of fear and propaganda surrounding their poisonous and hallucinogenic properties. It is my goal as a herbalist who has worked with these potent plant allies for the past decade to help dispel the fear and misinformation as well as educate people about the multi-purpose uses of these powerful herbs.

When dosed and prepared properly as a salve by an experienced herbalist and applied externally, medicinal nightshades can be used with the same safety as ibuprofen or a rub-on analgesic. Use them as needed, but don't go overboard. Give yourself breaks so your body doesn't build up too much of a tolerance and the medicine becomes less and less effective as with any medicine.

Yes belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake are poisonous and psychoactive, but so are tobacco, alcohol, and coffee! After a few years of continuing to make my nightshade ointments any fear my customers initially had went away and was replaced with feedback such as: "This stuff really works!" and "My fears were unfounded once I started using it for my arthritis." Since I started making and selling my nightshade ointments I have been interviewed by university professors, podcasters, written articles and monographs for journals, and presented at herbal and spiritual conferences on the subject of nightshades and flying ointments. I am currently working on a book, an eBook, and an eCourse to further continue my goal of rebirthing the traditional uses of nightshade medicine.

What Can Nightshade Medicine Do For You?

The medicinal members of the nightshade (or solanaceae) family are some of the most potent drugs we have available to us on the planet and extracts of their alkaloids such as atropine are still incredibly important in modern medicine for which belladonna, datura, and brugmansia are grown on an industrial scale to be turned into pharmaceuticals used today to treat severe gastro-intestinal issues, motion sickness, nausea and vomiting after surgery, and are made into injections to premedicate patients before operations as a pain-killer, anesthetic, and anti-inflammatory. The herbs I use in my ointments (belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake) are aphrodisiac, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antisialagogue, antispasmodic, anticholinergic, euphoric, hypnotic, narcotic, and sedative. For a herbalist, it's an incredible range of useful actions that can help people with many different types and levels of pain, mental health issues, and sleep issues.

Medicinal nightshades relieve inflammation, muscle spasms, as well as acute and chronic pain. Plants that are narcotic and sedative help with falling and staying asleep. Antisialagogue/anticholinergic medicines help with dizziness, gastro-intestinal issues, asthma, bronchitis, and insomnia. Used externally, however, a nightshade ointment will only help with insomnia and cramping, not respiratory problems or bowel issues. 

As euphoric plants, the solanaceae aren’t just medicine for physical pain, they are also medicine for the soul. Friends and patrons alike use the ointments to treat anxiety, frayed nerves, and depression which often go hand in hand with chronic pain and sleep issues. Because of their applications, medicinal nightshades can be used instead of cannabis and opiates. Everyone is different, so they won't work the same for everyone, but if they work for you they are a legal and non-addictive option for those looking to soothe the body and soul.

Medicinal nightshades are not safe to use long-term when ingested. The body builds up a tolerance to the tropane alkaloids, but the heart does not and one can unintentionally poison themselves -- even when following the dosages on the tincture bottle. The safest way to prepare and use poisonous nightshade plants as medicine is to infuse them in oil or lard to make a topical ointment.

Recommended Books

Encyclopedia of Pyschoactive Plants by Christian Ratsch

Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History by Jonathan Ott

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Christian Ratsch, Wolf Dieter-Storl, and

Witches' Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic by Thomas Hastis

The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth