Toxicity and historical usageEdit
It was historically used in combination with other plants, such as mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura as an anaesthetic potion, as well as for its psychoactive properties in "magic brews." These psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of flight. Its usage was originally in continental Europe, Asia and the Arab world, though it did spread to England in the Middle Ages. The use of Henbane by the ancient Greeks was documented by Pliny. The plant, recorded as Herba Apollinaris, was used to yield oracles by the priestesses of Apollo.
The name henbane name dates at least to 1265. The origins of the word are unclear but "hen" probably originally meant death rather than referring to chickens. Hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other tropane alkaloids have been found in the foliage and seeds of the plant. Common effects of henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils, restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and ataxia have all been noted.
Henbane can be toxic, even fatal, to animals in low doses. Not all animals are susceptible, however; the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Cabbage Moth eat henbane.
It was sometimes one of the ingredients in gruit, traditionally used in beers as a flavouring, until replaced by hops in the 11th to 16th centuries (for example, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 outlawed ingredients other than barley, hops, and water).
Henbane is thought to have been the "hebenon" poured into the ear of Hamlet's father (although other candidates for hebenon exist).In 1910, an American homeopath living in London, Hawley Harvey Crippen, allegedly usedscopolamine, an alkaloid extracted from henbane, to poison his wife.