Quick facts

Common name: deadly nightshade

Scientific name: Atropa belladonna

Family: Solanaceae

Origin: native

Flowering season: June to September

Habitat: woodland, scrub, path edges

What does deadly nightshade look like?

Deadly nightshade is a perennial plant with long, thin branches.

Leaves: oval-shaped, untoothed with smooth edges and pointed ends. They grow on stalks in an alternate pattern and are poisonous.

Flowers: bell-shaped with purple and green colouration, around 2.5–3cm in length.

Fruit: shiny black berries with five sepals visible where the fruit attaches to the plant. The berries are also highly poisonous.

Not to be confused with: bittersweet, known as woody nightshade, which has the same colour flowers as deadly nightshade. However, the flowers of bittersweet have noticeable yellow antlers and are suspended from purple stems. The berries are red instead of black, though both are poisonous.

Did you know?

Deadly nightshade has a long and violent history; it’s thought to have been used by the original Macbeth to poison Duncan’s troops.

Where to find deadly nightshade

Look in scrubby areas and woodland, but also along paths and banks. Find it in the southern half of Britain on calcareous (chalky) soil and in areas where soil has been disturbed.

Deadly night shade twig with berries

Credit: WILDLIFE Gmbh / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Some birds can eat the berries of deadly nightshade although they are more likely to take fruits from other plant species. The berries are also poisonous to various mammals, but eaten by rabbits and even cows!

Mythology and symbolism

Deadly nightshade was said to be the property of the Devil, meaning that anyone who eats the berries is punished for eating his fruit. In art and poetry, it represents danger and betrayal.

Deadly nightshade

Credit: Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo

Uses of deadly nightshade

Medicines made from the plant are said to ease abdominal problems and motion sickness. It is also used by eye surgeons – in a very refined state – as it dilates the pupils.

Did you know?

Belladonna means ‘beautiful woman’ as it was used by Renaissance women to dilate their pupils. Atropa is in reference to Atropos, one of the Three Fates in Greek mythology who snipped the sting of a person’s life and decided their death.

Blog

Foxglove and other poisonous plants

Helen Keating  •  20 Feb 2019

A quick guide to five of the most poisonous plants you may encounter on a countryside walk in the UK. Learn how to recognise them and get fascinating facts on their toxicity.

Discover more