Belladonna (Atropa bella-donna) is extremely toxic to humans, cats, dogs, and horses. It is one plant that should never be planted in your yard. Belladonna escaped its native areas in Eurasia and has naturalized in other parts of the world. It is important to be able to identify belladonna and remove it promptly before it can cause any harm.
The botanical name of the genus gives away how deadly, but alluring, the plant is to human life.
- Atropa comes from Atropos, the Greek goddess who, as one of the three goddesses of fate and destiny, holds the shears to cut the thread of life.
- The common and species name, belladonna, comes from the Italian words for a beautiful woman, “bella donna”. Ladies of the Venetian court used eye drops made of belladonna to dilate their pupils, viewed as a sign of special beauty at the time.
Which Parts of Belladonna Are Toxic?
All parts of belladonna—leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots—are highly toxic to humans and domesticated animals if consumed.
It is not toxic, however, to birds and wildlife. When honeybees feed on belladonna, the honey they produce can contain significant amounts of atropine, which also makes the honey toxic—another compelling reason to remove belladonna promptly wherever it pops up.
How to Identify Belladonna
Belladonna is a tall, bushy, upright, perennial of the nightshade family that comes back every year. It grows three to four feet high and wide.
The dark green leaves are oval and unevenly sized, ranging from three to ten inches in length. The leaves on the lower part of the plant are solitary, on the upper part of the plant, they grow in pairs.
Belladonna blooms for an extended period, from June through early September. The flowers are mildly scented, dull purple or lavender with a green tinge, and are distinctly bell-shaped. The flowers are located in the leaf axils, the angle between the leaf and the upper part of the stem.
The fruit, often called the Devil's cherry, ripens between late August and September and is black and shiny like a cherry. The berries are not evenly sized and can reach about three-quarters of an inch in size. Once they ripen, the berries dry up quickly. Due to their slight resemblance with wild edible berries, such as blueberries and blackberries, the purplish-black, sweet-tasting fruit of belladonna poses a particular risk of being ingested.
Where Does Belladonna Grow?
Belladonna is native to Eurasia from England through central and southern Europe, North Africa to Iran. In the United States, belladonna has been found in several states, including New York, Michigan, California, Oregon, and Washington. It often grows in wasteland and areas with disturbed soil such as dumps, quarries, and along roadsides.
How Does Belladonna Spread?
Belladonna spreads rapidly like a weed. The plant dies back during the winter and regrows in the spring from its thick, fleshy roots. Birds that eat the seeds without any ill effects spread the plant to other locations in their droppings.
How to Get Rid of Belladonna from Your Yard
If you have positively identified belladonna in your yard, take all the necessary precautions to avoid skin contact. Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots, and gloves. If the plant is tall and there is the slightest risk that your face can get in contact with the plant, also wear goggles or a full-face respirator.
Dig out the plant with all its roots. Be thorough because belladonna regrows from any roots left in the soil. Safely dispose of the entire plant including its roots in the trash. Don’t forget to disinfect the tools you have been using for removing the plant—shovel, pruners—with a chlorine bleach solution (1 cup chlorine bleach per 1 gallon water). When cleaning the tools, wear waterproof gloves and dispose of the solution properly. Wash your work clothes immediately and separately from other clothing.
If belladonna starts to regrow from residual roots, the most efficient chemical to use is a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate. Make sure to apply the herbicide when the shoots are still very small to minimize the use of herbicide and kill the plant before it can spread again.
Poison Control - National Capital Poison Center. “Poisonous and Non-Poisonous Plants.” Poison.org. N.p., n.d. Web.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Deadly nightshade." Aspca.org. N.p., n.d. Web.
United States Forest Services “Solanaceae: Belladonna.” Fed.us. N.p., n.d. Web.