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‘Poison’ alter ego: Deadly Nightshade

• May 19, 2009 • 4:15 PM


The dark, intensely sweet berries of deadly nightshade may taste appealing, but ingesting one too many could be a fatal mistake.

The berries, along with the leaves, stem and roots, of this 5-foot-tall plant are full of the alkaloid toxins atropine, hyoscyamine and solanine, all of which affect the nervous system. Simply handling deadly nightshade, which is native to Europe, Africa and North America, causes skin irritation; and experts caution neither freezing nor cooking the fruit destroys the toxins. Sally, a main character in The Nightmare Before Christmas, evidently knew this, as on multiple occasions, she drugged her creator, Dr. Finklestein, by slipping deadly nightshade into his tea and soup.

In reality, minor doses of deadly nightshade’s poisons cause disorientation and hallucinations — a reason why some adults, both currently and in the past, intentionally ingest small amounts of the fruit despite the risk of more severe symptoms. Italian women even used to drop minute amounts of deadly nightshade extract into their eyes to dilate their pupils to make themselves appear more attractive.

As deadly nightshade dosage amounts increase, however, the poisons induce vomiting and abdominal pain and begin to paralyze nerve endings in involuntary muscles. Eventually, severe poisonings lead to rapid pulse rates, seizures, internal bleeding, coma and even death.

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Julia Griffin
Julia Griffin is a master's candidate in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A fellow at the Miller-McCune Center in 2009, before that she worked as a film researcher for John-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society and a producer/writer in CNN's Science and Technology Unit. She has a degree in marine biology from Duke University, and hopes to pursue a career in science and environmental journalism.

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