Hyoscyamus species occur in W. Europe, N. Africa and in SW and C. Asia. H. niger is naturalized in N. America and Australia. It is a common species in disturbed areas and can grow as an annual or a biennial. The petals are greyish yellow with dark purple veins.
According to ethnobotanist Wolf – Dieter Storl, H. niger was used for shamanic purposes in Eurasia as far back as the Paleolithic period. Knowledge of the plant, but not the plant itself, is thought to have been brought to the Americas by migrating Paleoindians. Because H. niger was not present in the Americas, Nicotiana tabaccum was used as a substitute.
Ancient authors (Dioscorides, Pliny) were familiar with black henbane. It has been suggested that henbane was the magical Homeric nepenthes. The plant has a long and fascinating history of ethnobotanical use. I’ll offer a short overview with information from Christian Ratsch’s The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants.
In the fourteenth century, Guy de Chauliac described a narcotic inhalation of henbane for medicinal purposes. A similar fumigation was mentioned in The Thousand and One Nights. But the plant was also used as a fumigant for magical purposes. Albertus Magnus, in his work De Vegtabilibusm (1250), reported that necromancers used henbane to invoke the souls of the dead as well as demons.
Henbane smoke has strong aphrodisiac effects, and was reportedly used in such a manner in the infamous bathhouses of the late Middle Ages where seeds were strewn over glowing coals and smoke mixed with steam.
Henbane was already being demonized during the Middle Ages adn associated with witchcraft.
“The witches drank the decoction of henbane and had those dreams for which they were tortured and execcuted. It was also used for witches’ ointments and was used for making weather and conjuring spirits. If there were a great drought then a stalk of henbane would be dipped into a spring, then the sun-baked sand would be sprinkled with this” (Perger 1864, 181).
The Assyrians called henbane by the name sakiru and used the plant for medicinal purposes, as an inebriation additive to beer, and as an incense.
Henbane was also used for psychoactive purposes in Asia. Following is information taken from the Pen-ts’ao Ching, an ancient Chinese herbal book. The subspecies was known as langtang:
“The seeds, when properly prepared and ingested over along period of time, make it possible for one to go for a very long way, are useful for the mind, and increase power… Moreover, through them one can communicate with spirits and see devils. If they are taken in excess they will make one stupid.”
From a western scientific standpoint Henbane is a neurotoxin, mind-altering, and extremely hazardous. The plant contains tropane alkaloids hyoschamine, scopolamine, and several more minor compounds. At low concentrations the alkaloids have depressant and sedative effects, but high doses lead to hallucinations, euphoria, confusion, insomnia, tantrum, uncoonsciousness and death from respiratory arrest. Typical symptoms include reddening of the face, dry mouth, dilated pupils and enhanced pulse. Scopolamine is favored as a hallucinogen (Wink and van Wyk, 2008).
Since ancient times Henbane has been used for pain relief, toothache and nervous disorders. Leaves were smoked to treat asthma. In modern medicine, henbane leaf or henbane alkaloids are used in ophthalmology and to treat spasms of the gastrointestinal tract.