Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte, bugwood.org
Hyoscyamus niger L.
Scientific Name Synonyms:
Life Span: Annual/Biennial
Growth Characteristics: Black henbane is a member of the nightshade family and a native of the Mediterranean. It was introduced as an ornamental and medicinal plant in the 17th century. It can reach heights of up to 3 feet. It spreads by seed and flowers from May to September. The entire plant is covered with greasy hairs.
Flowers: Borne on spikes from the leaf axils. The flowers are showy, 5-lobed, and up to 2 inches across. They are tubular, greenish-yellow in color, with deep purple veins and centers.
Fruits/Seeds: The calyx forms a 1-inch, urn-shaped “fruit” that has a thickened lid that pops off at maturity, spilling the black seeds (10,000-500,000 per plant).
Leaves: Up to 8 inches long and 6 inches wide. They are alternate, shallowly lobed, coarsely toothed, and heavy scented.
Stems: Course, hairy
Black henbane has become a common weed of pastures, fence rows, roadsides, and waste areas. It produces a persistent litter that effects the germination and growth of native species. It also creates shade that will help black henbane out compete native species for light.
Soils: Is adapted to a wide variety of soils. It grows best in rich soils, and is common on sandy sites.
Associated Species: Alfalfa, big sagebrush, cheatgrass
Uses and Management:
All plant parts of black henbane are considered highly toxic because of alkaloids hyoscymine and scopolamine, and can be fatal if eaten. It is poisonous to all livestock and humans, even at low doses. Symptoms of poisoning include: Salivation, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rapid pulse, convulsions, and coma. It can cause skin irritation if it is touched with bare skin.
Black henbane has the bad reputation of a plant that has poisoned and killed many people. The famous English playwright Shakespeare perpetuated this plant by putting a tincture of henbane in the hand of King Hamlet’s murderer.
Affective herbicides include: picloram, dicamba, 2,4-D and metsilfuron.
The two alkaloids (hyoscyamine and scopolamine) are useful sedative/ anti-spasmodic drugs when used under controlled conditions.
In the Middle Ages, black henbane was widely used in Germany to augment the inebriating qualities of beer. The names of many German towns originate from the word Bilsen–henbane. Later on, the word was transformed to Pilsen to name the famous Pilsen beer. It took many years to prohibit the use of henbane in brewing after numerous cases of poisonings.