Hyoscyamus niger - Henbane

Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Equisetopsida - Order: Solanales - Family: Solanaceae

Henbane flowers, closeup

Henbane is one of our most deadly wildflowers with all parts of the plant being poisonous. For that reason, if no other, it has an interesting history. Other common names are 'Devil's Eye' and 'Stinking Roger', the latter referring to its strong, unpleasant smell.

Identification

Henbane, a member of the family Solanaceae, is a very hairy, sticky plant that grows up to 75cm in height. The flowers are 2 to 3cm across and are creamy-yellow and funnel-shaped with a dark purplish centres. The leaves are pointed and the lower ones are toothed.

Habitat

This poisonous plant is most often found growing on disturbed ground, particularly where the soil is sandy.

Henbane plant, Dorset UK
Pictures by kind permission of Anne Horsfall

Distribution

In Britain, Henbane is localised but sometimes common in the south and east of England although rare elsewhere. Henbane is also found throughout the Mediterranean region, where it grows in similar places to those in Britain but particularly near the sea.

Blooming times

In Britain and Ireland Henbane is in flower from June until August, but in warmer countries the flowers can be seen from April onwards.

Uses

In 1910 Henbane became famous as a result of the criminal activities of Dr Crippen, who used the plant to source the chemical hyoscine with which he murdered his wife. Other deadly chemicals contained in Henbane are the alkaloids hyoscyamine, scopolomaine and atrophine. The symptoms of poisoning include delerium, and convulsions that lead to coma and death. Henbane does, however, have some medicinal benefits and has been used throughout history to treat various ailments, from travel-sickness to toothache and even mental illness.


Volume 1

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