Hyoscyamus niger – Henbane



The black henbane, which is a member of the family of the nightshades (solanaceae), grows in sandy regions, on dumps and roadsides of Southern Europe. More northern henbane occurs only rarely. In the medieval ages it was grown in special henbane gardens, to be used as beer enhancer, which means ground henbane seeds were added to beer, to make it more intoxicating. The name of the town of Pilsen and finally also the name Pilsen for a well known type of beer can thus be traced back to the German name “Bilsenkraut” of this very traditional intoxicating plant.

Use: The leaves and most of all the seeds of henbane, which can be easily dosed, are smoked because of their intoxicating effect. The witches’ flying ointments of the medieval times were produced by cooking shred parts of the plant in pork lard at not too high temperatures. Afterwards the still hot fat was strained through cloth directly into the storage container. Smoking and the use as a salve share the advantage, that the effect is easier to dose and control, than it is possible in the case of taking it in as a tea or even as the drug itself. (But even so Karl Kiesewetter, a researcher und expert in the matter of witches’ ointments, died during a self-experiment.) The intake of the seeds as well as preparations out of them is therefore not advised.

Active constituents: Most of all scopolamine, besides that hyoscyamine and atropine.

Effects: Black henbane is a narcotic and hallucinogenic acting, poisonous plant. Hallucinations of the senses of smell, hearing and taste can occur. Aggressive behavior during the early state of excitement can take place. Later it can come to a deep, narcotic sleep, during which hallucinations, often of sexual content, or also dreams of flying or changing into an animal are experienced. The world is perceived as magical, mystical and fairytale-like under the influence of scopolamine. The hallucinations that are caused by the nightshade-alkaloids seem not rarely real to the intoxicated. A species related to the well known black henbane, the white henbane (Hyoscyamus albus or Hyoscyamus muticus) grows in parts of North Africa, for instance in Egypt, and is called by the Arabs “Sekaran”, the intoxicating. The leaves of this plant are still sometimes smoked today by the Bedouins to cause states of intoxication. Out of the three most important nightshades, Atropa belladonna, Hyoscyamus niger, and henbane the very cautious use of the last seems to be the least risky, especially if it is smoked. One reason is the relatively lowest alkaloid-concentration among the three plants. The second is that the relative portion of the strongly poisonous substances atropine and hyoscyamine is lower and the less toxic scopolamine prevails more in henbane than in the other two.

Side Effects: Henbane is poisonous. Those who want to experiment with nightshades, must be aware of that and should have studied well the effects of atropine, hyoscyamine und scopolamine, which all can lead to death in high doses. Thirst, a feeling of pressure in the head, dizziness, a feeling of being poisoned are the most commonly occurring side effects. Especially on the next day a hangover like feeling of being intoxicated is common.

Caution is advised in cases of repeated use within short time intervals; repeated small, usually harmless doses, can already suffice in order to enter a strong intoxication. During the early excitation phase a relatively high frequency of the heartbeat can occur. People with an already damaged heart (angina pectoris, constriction of the coronary arteries, heart attack) should therefore use henbane under no circumstances. Compare the effects and side effects of Atropa belladonna and Datura stramonium.

Suppliers: In Northern and  Central Europe it is rarely found in nature. Seeds available in ethnobotanical stores, plants sometimes in specialized garden centers and market gardens.

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