Henbane, Jimson weed, mandrake, and belladonna are the common names of nightshades that have medicinal uses. These plants contain alkaloids, substances that contain nitrogen, which can be isolated from the plant and used as drugs. The narcotic property of mandrake can induce sleep and may have been used as an anesthetic in ancient times. It is a small plant that has most of its leaves at the base. Its flowers are yellow-green in color, and it has a thick carrot-shaped root, the part that is used to produce medicine. While it is not used pharmaceutically anymore, some related plants are still a source of drugs.
Henbane has from 12-15 species, mostly native to the Mediterranean. Black henbane is the one that is used mainly for drugs, its principal alkaloid being hyoscyamine. It is a small annual or perennial with hairy, coarsely lobed leaves with an unpleasant odor. It is used as a pain reliever for spasms and as a sedative. Henbane is also sometimes used as an antidote to mercury poisoning and in the treatment of morphine addiction.
Jimson weed also contains the hyoscyamine alkaloid and can cause a temporary loss of vision, convulsions, dry skin, and dilated pupils. Some of its other common names are devil's apple, thorn apple, and stinkweed. Its botanical name is Datura stramonium. It grows profusely as a weed in this country. Like the henbane it has an unpleasant odor and coarsely lobed leaves with prickly capsules that contain its seeds. Its alkaloids areatropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, and it is used medicinally in various treatments.
Belladonna, also called deadly nightshade, gets its name from its ability to dilate the pupils of the eyes. In the past women used belladonna for this purpose because they felt it made them more attractive. The word means "beautiful lady" in Italian. The plant is a medium-sized herb with long, dark green leaves and small purple flowers. The alkaloids in the plant come from the leaves and the root. Scopolamine and atropine are the main substances used from belladonna in medicine. They have been used as analgesics, anesthesia, and are especially useful in examining eyes. Atropine is also an antidote for some poisons.
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