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Solanine (Molecule of the Month for September 2001)

Deadly Nightshade

The chemicals contained within deadly nightshade (or atropa belladonna) have been used throughout history and still have valuable uses in today's society. The most pronounced chemical (the compound that is responsible for most of the nightshade's more unusual properties), is solanine.

Deadly Nightshade has many different names all over the world. It is mostly found in central and southern Europe, as well as in parts of Asia and North Africa, but will grow well mostly anywhere, in the shade of trees and large bushes. It belongs to the Solanaceae family of plants and is therefore related to the potato, tomato and tobacco plants. The scientific name of Deadly Nightshade is Atropa Belladonna. This comes from the various uses of the plant as atropa is a derivative of the Greek word atropos, which is one of the three Greek fates, and means "to cut the thread of life". Belladonna comes from the Italian word to mean 'beautiful lady' as Italian ladies used to use the sap of the deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils as they thought this made them more beautiful and hence the name.

It is also known my other nicknames other the world which include dwale, devil's herb, love apple, sorcerer's cherry, witches berry, divale, and dwayberry.

The deadly nightshade is a perennial plant with dull, darkish green leaves. It grows to approximately 1-2 meters in height and has thick, fleshy, whitish roots. The flowers come out in June - July in the U.K and are solitary, brown purple in coloration and bell shaped. The berries, which can be seen below, ripen in September and have a dark, ink like juice that is highly poisonous.

The deadly nightshade has been used throughout history for various purposes, most of which were quite unsavoury. The ancient Greeks used to drink it when they visited the Oracle of Delphi and added the juice to their famous wine of the Bacchanals. During the middle ages it was used widely for all manner of purposes including hallucinogenic and torture. Deadly nightshade was the poison used to poison the troops of Mark Anthony during the parathion wars and was in a liquor which Macbeth gave to a party of Danes during a truce.

Torturers of the time used it to gain confessions from both the guilty and innocent as those employed under its power are confused and weakened, and cannot distinguish between truth and fantasy. Witches of the middle ages were said to use it as a main ingredient in their brews as it caused them to experience the feeling of flying. More recently the juice has been used as a main component in many purple dyes and is used to treat gout, rheumatism and angina. It is also used as a childbirth anesthesia, to treat inflammatory tumors, and cancerous leaf's and in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. The people of Nepal use it as a sedative, while the Moroccans use it to stimulate memory and as an aphrodisiac and those in the illegal drug trade use it to fortify marijuana.

Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)

Picture of Solanine

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Solanine structure
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Picture of Solanine

Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for September 2001 )