Deadly nightshade

I realized recently that I’ve written about a lot of nefarious plants: Darlingtonia (AKA the cobra lily) and pokeweed.



I guess I sort of love the deadly plants. There are the poisonous ones, like poke, and the meat-eating ones, like Darlingtonia. They don’t pull any punches. They don’t like us members of the animal kingdom – or, rather, they like us fine, so long as we’re for breakfast.



A few years ago, before the I-195 bridge through Providence was uprooted, there were some beautiful Datura plants under the overpass. Datura (also called Jimson weed) is reputedly hallucinogenic, and even deadly. (In the Delibes opera “Lakme,” the title character commits suicide by drinking nectar from a Datura flower.)



Then there’s deadly nightshade.



We are having a lovely crop of it around town this year. See the above photo? That’s in a parking lot about two blocks from my office. Nightshade (AKA Atropa belladonna) is completely deadly; the families of the early Roman emperors were decimated by people (like Livia, the wife of Augustus) who knew how to use Atropa correctly.



It’s a lovely plant, as you can see above, and looks completely harmless. It’s a member of the same family as the tomato, and (as you might imagine) it took a while for the tomato to become accepted in Europe and America, because in those days, everyone knew what happened when you ate those little appetizing-looking red fruits.



Also, it has its everyday uses. If you use the extract (called “atropine”) as eyedrops, it gives you lovely big dark pupils. This accounts for its other name: belladonna, “beautiful woman.”



Also, atropine reduces your vulnerability to radiation. If you know a nuclear strike is impending, take a big dose of atropine and get in a bathtub full of water; you’ll greatly reduce your danger of radiation poisoning.



Unless, of course, the nuclear strike doesn’t happen. In which case you will die of atropine poisoning.



But life isn’t perfect, is it?

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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