Country diary: the secrets of deadly nightshade

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Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The belladonna has a strange purple glow and an even stranger history

A translation of a 17th-century haiku by Bashō is “Fading bells – / now musky blossoms / peal in dusk”. His bells may not refer to the flowers we find in dusky shadows at the wood’s edge, but it fits them; they are musky and mysterious, ringing out an old story about magic, poison and death.

When Linnaeus described and named these plants in 1753, he included them in Class 1 (“herbaceous plants … bell-shaped flowers of which the pistil becomes a fleshy fruit rather large”), and he named only two genera – Mandragora (the human-shaped root believed to grow underneath gallows, and dug for magical rituals) and Belladonna. Linnaeus merged the two into Atropa – “the unmaking”, named after one of the Three Fates who cuts the thread of life her sisters make. Belladona (“beautiful woman”, named after the seductive dilation of pupils it can cause) became Atropa belladonnadeadly nightshade. And that name is not accidental: this plant is deadly.

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